A couple of week ago, CBC decided to make a big deal about how terrible Canadian universities were for not collecting data on race (see Why so many Canadian universities Know so little about their own racial diversity). As you all know, I’m a big proponent of better data in higher education. But the effort involved in getting new data has to be in some way proportional to the benefit derived from that data. And I’m pretty sure this doesn’t meet that test.
In higher education, there are only two points where it is easy to collect data from students: at the point of application, and at the point of enrolment. But here’s what the Ontario Human Rights Code has to say about collecting data on race/ethnicity in application forms:
Section 23(2) of the Code prohibits the use of any application form or written or oral inquiry that directly or indirectly classifies an applicant as being a member of a group that is protected from discrimination. Application forms should not have questions that ask directly or indirectly about race, ancestry, place of origin, colour, ethnic origin, citizenship, creed, sex, sexual orientation, record of offences, age, marital status, family status or disability.
In other words, it’s 100% verboten. Somehow, CBC seems to have missed this bit. Similar provisions apply to data collected at the time of enrolment –a school still needs to prove that there is a bona fide reason related to one’s schooling in order to require a student to answer the question. So generally speaking, no one asks a question at that point either.
Now, if institutions can’t collect relevant data via administrative means, what they have to do to get data on race/ethnicity is move to a voluntary survey. Which in fact they do, regularly. Some do a voluntary follow-up survey of applicants through Academica, others attach race/ethnicity questions on the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium (CUSC) surveys, others attach it to NSSE. Response rates on these surveys are not great: NSSE sometimes gets 50% but that’s the highest rate available. And, broadly speaking, they get high-level data about their student body. The data isn’t great quality because of the response rate isn’t fabulous and the small numbers mean that you can’t really subdivide ethnicity very much (don’t expect good numbers on Sikhs v. Tamils), but one can know at a rough order of magnitude what percentage of the student body is visible minority, what percentage self-identifies as aboriginal, etc. I showed this data at a national level back here.
Is it possible to get better data? It’s hard to imagine, frankly. On the whole, students aren’t crazy about being surveyed all the time. NSSE has the highest response rate of any survey out there, and CUSC isn’t terrible either (though it tends to work on a smaller sample size). Maybe we could ask slightly better questions about ethnicities, maybe we could harmonize the questions across the two surveys. That could get you data at institutions which cover 90% of institutions in English Canada (at least).
Why would we want more than that? We already put so much effort into these surveys: why go to all kinds of trouble to do a separate data collection activity which in all likelihood would have worse response rates than what we already have?
It would be one thing, I think, if we thought Canadian universities had a real problem in not admitting minority students. But the evidence at the moment the opposite: that visible minority students in fact attend at a rate substantially higher than their share of the population. It’s possible of course that some sub-sections of the population are not doing as well (the last time I looked at this data closely was a decade ago, but youth from the Caribbean were not doing well at the time). But spending untold dollars and effort to get at that problem in institutions across country when really the Caribbean community in Canada is clustered in just two cities (three, if you count the African Nova Scotians in Halifax)? I can’t see it.
Basically, this is one of those cases where people are playing data “gotcha”. We actually do know (more or less) where we are doing well or poorly at a national level. On the whole, where visible minorities are concerned, we are doing well. Indigenous students? Caribbean students? That’s a different story. But we probably don’t need detailed institutional data collection to tell us that. If that’s really what the issue is, let’s just deal with it. Whinging about data collection is just a distraction.