Many people complain that there is a lack of post-secondary data in Canada. But this is actually not true. There are tons of data about; it’s just that institutions won’t share or publish much of it.
Let me tell you a little story. Once upon a time, there was a small, public-minded higher education research company that wanted to create the equivalent of Statistics Canada’s university tuition fee index for colleges. The company had completed a project like this before, but had done so in a somewhat imprecise way because of the time and effort involved in getting enrollment data necessary to weight the program-level tuition data. And so, politely, it began asking colleges for their enrolments by program.
Now, program-level enrolments are not a state secret. We are talking about publicly-funded institutions here, and given the number of people who use these services, this is very much the definition of public information. Nor are these data difficult to collect or display. Institutions know exactly how many students are in each program, because it’s the basis on which they collect fees.
And yet, across most of the country, many institutions have simply refused to provide the data. The reasons are a mix of the understandable and the indefensible. Some probably don’t want to do it because it’s a disruptive task outside their workplan. Others are cautious because they don’t quite know how the data will be used (or they disagree with how it will be used) and are afraid of internal repercussions if it turns out that the shared data ends up making their institution look bad (note: we’re using the data to publish provincial averages, not institutional ones; however, in single-institution provinces like Saskatchewan or Newfoundland and Labrador, this can’t be helped). A few simply just don’t want to release the data because it’s theirs.
Regardless, it is unacceptable for public institutions to conceal basic operational data for reasons of convenience. That’s not the way publicly-funded bodies are supposed to operate in a democracy. And so, regretfully, we’ve had to resort to filing Access to Information (ATI) requests to find out how many students attend public college programs across Canada. Sad, but true.
It then occurred to me how many of our national higher education data problems could be solved through Access to Information legislation. Take Simona Chiose’s very good piece in the Globe and Mail last week in which she tried to piece together what Canadian universities are doing with sessional professors, and where many institutions simply refused to give her data. If someone simply started hitting the universities with annual ATI requests on sessional lectures, and publishing the results, we’d have good data pretty quickly. Ditto for data on teaching loads. All that excellent comparable data the U-15 collects every year? You can’t ATI the U-15 because it’s a private entity, but it’s easy-peasy lemon squeezy to ATI all of the U-15 members for their correspondence with the Ottawa office, and get the data that way (or, conversely, ATI the U-15’s correspondence to each university, and get the collected data that way).
Oh, I could go on here. Want better data on staff and students? ATI the universities that have factbooks, but refuse to put them online (hello, McGill and UNB!). Want better data on PhD graduate outcomes? ATI every university’s commencement programs from last year’s graduation ceremonies, and presto, you’ve got a register of 3,000 or so PhDs, most of whom can be tracked on social media to create a statistical portrait of career paths (this would take a little bit of volunteer effort, but I can think of quite a few people who would provide it, so while not easy-peasy lemon squeezy, it wouldn’t be difficult-difficult lemon difficult, either).
It’s not a cure-all of course. Even with all that ATI data, it would take time to process the data and put it into usable formats. Plus there’s an agency problem: who’s going to put all these requests together? Personally, I think student unions are the best place to do so, if not necessarily the best-equipped to subsequently handle the data. And of course institutional data is only part of the equation. Statistics Canada data has to improve significantly, too, in order to better look at student outcomes (a usable retention measure would be good, as would an annual PSIS-LAD-student aid database link to replace the now-terminally screwed National Graduates Survey).
To be clear, I’m not suggesting going hair-trigger on ATIs. It’s important to always ask nicely for the data first; sometimes, institutions and governments can be very open and helpful. But the basic issue is that data practices of post-secondary institutions in Canada have to change. Secrecy in the name of protecting privacy is laudable; secrecy in the name of self-interested ass-covering is not. We need some glasnost in higher education data in this country. If it takes a wave of ATI requests to do it, so be it. Eventually, once enough the results of these ATI requests filter into the public realm, institutions themselves will try to get ahead of the curve and become more transparent as a matter of course.
I’d like to think there was a simpler and less confrontational way of achieving data transparency, but I am starting to lose hope.