Higher Education Strategy Associates

Data on Race/Ethnicity

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.

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11 Responses to Data on Race/Ethnicity

  1. Adam says:

    Perhaps I’m missing the section reference, but Section 23 (2) of the code refers to employment, and not specifically to education applications.

    Source: https://www.ontario.ca/laws/statute/90h19#BK26

    Section 23:

    Application for employment
    (2) The right under section 5 to equal treatment with respect to employment is infringed where a form of application for employment is used or a written or oral inquiry is made of an applicant that directly or indirectly classifies or indicates qualifications by a prohibited ground of discrimination. R.S.O. 1990, c. H.19, s. 23 (2).

  2. JRG says:

    Even if there were good reason to collect information about racial diversity, it brings up a whole other set of problems when it comes to defining different racial categories–assuming you accept that there are races to begin with. As a person of mixed Eurasian ancestry myself, I’ve rarely fit into categories on most surveys that do collect such data. On the Canadian census, I was classified as an “other” until 2001 when they finally increased the number of categories. As our population continues to melt together, these types of data become less meaningful. Nonetheless, I’m sure there are some categories that will remain somewhat discrete, but I still question how racial categories will be defined.

    • Sean M says:

      JRG: that was my experience applying to American universities, which are very keen to collect data on race while not using that word, and to collect it in a way which can be stored in a database and searched in SQL. Their categories didn’t match how I think about myself, and while I can guess what category Americans would assign me, that is only a guess.

      Some First Nations folks are happy to talk about the mess which can arise when a government forces people into or out of ethnic/racial categories and erases the messy ambiguity at the edges.

  3. Danielle Pierre says:

    Alex: as people with significant influence in the higher education sector, I resent the flippant approach you have taken to this issue. While this discussion about race-based data collection is not new, it is finally gaining real traction in government and now is not the time to dismiss these efforts. You seem to suggest that the sector could not collect better quality data, even by re-evaluating existing approaches in voluntary surveying. With a little more effort (or taking a cue from the Trans PULSE survey), new questions that do no conflate race and ethnicity could be asked of students. This would give us a truer higher level overview of who is and is not white (since “visible minority” is really a relative term), then we could have a separate data set that illuminates what that non-whiteness looks like. That’s effort sure, but it is worth the money.

    You’re certainly right to question why we would want to separate collecting racial data from other information about students; this demographic data is only useful so far as it can be used for cross tabulation. I think where this piece is particularly damaging is in the conclusions. I think universities are uncomfortable admitting they have a race problem and will continue to deny this as long as there is limited evidence to say otherwise. Demographic data is only one piece of this evidence, yes, but it gets those that have their discrimination dismissed as anecdotal one step closer to recognition in this regard.

    I think that accurate race-based demographic data is crucial for the improvement of higher education, certainly more important than you have made it out to be here. Institutional data collection is the only way to make meaningful and relevant use of research findings. Race effects Canadian students in complex ways. Here you have completely disregarded those experiences by using ten year old data to claim the problem isn’t so bad. Then you acknowledge a problem for Caribbean students, lumping them in with multi-generational Black Canadians in Nova Scotia and disregarding the existence of first, second, third, etc. generation Black students elsewhere in Canada. I really expect more from this blog and am disappointed for the relatively thoughtless contribution to the conversation about race-based demographic data.

    • Alex Usher says:

      With respect, I think you’ve misread me.

      The point is not that data on race is not important. The point is that a) there is almost no way to improve on current collection practices and b) there is limited benefit in trying to get much more precise on race than our current instruments (i.e. CUSC and NSSE) are simply because we have so many racial/ethnic groups each making up such a small percentage of the population means that sampling issues will cloud any conceviable result you’d obtain. Exploit what the sector already collects more than we do? Sure. But given the legal restrictions put in place by Human Rights Codes, I don’t see how this gets us very far.

      As for “using ten year old data to say things are not so bad”, that’s simply not true. I quoted ten year old data to note that certain populations had worse PSE outcomes than others. If you’d followed the links, you would have seen that I was also quoting data less than a year old to note that visible minority students as a whole appear to have access rates well above those of non-visible minorities. I’ll put it here again so you can see it. http://higheredstrategy.com/know-your-incoming-students-part-1/ .

      You’re right, though (as is one other commenter) that I was wrong in lumping in Black Nova Scotians in this group. Dumb on my part. Mea culpa.

      • Alex Usher says:

        I mean, if we want to open up the debate to “should we change human rights codes to allow compulsory collection on race/ethnicity”, that’s a different story. I *think* I’d be OK with that as long as data was temporarily supressed in the adjudication of applications stage (I think there;s a way to do this technically). But that’s a different question. The post needs to be read in the context of what’s currently legal and feasible.

        • Danielle Pierre says:

          Stated by another commenter on the issue of how useful this information is: it goes well beyond access to encompass student experience. I think I implied this but didn’t say outright. What really gets under my skin is the logic as I read the post: sure this data is important + but there’s no way to get it any better + racialized students are accessing well above their population parity = let’s not bother trying to do better. Which, under current power dynamics, does not serve students of colour.

          For legality, again as stated by other commenters: In Ontario at least, where you reference the Code, the Chief Commissioner of the OHRC herself has said that schools should collect this data. It would definitely complicate interpretations of the code if the mandates for applications for employment also apply to applications to post-secondary, but I assume she supports data collection at the K-12 and post-secondary levels. Perhaps I am wrong to do so. I think this opens up more possibilities for adding a new column/sheet to enrolment datasets.

          • Alex Usher says:

            My understanding of the various commissioner’s offices positions is that they want everyone to collect the data, but anonymously, because as soon as you attach the data to an individual’s personal file it creates a potential source of discrimination.

  4. Intact says:

    Couple of issues here:

    – Your assumption that the usefulness of data is only an issue insofar as access/admission is concerned, is problematic. Student experience, retention and persistence, unintentional or unidentified barriers, are all equally, if not more, important reasons to know demographically who is on campus.

    – Use of the pronoun “we” is confusing. Who/what is the “we” you’re referring to? The distinction between you as a commenter/analyst/blogger and the universities, is not clear. Also, the underlying inference is that there is dichotomy at play: “we” is the university that manages students vs. students themselves. Good data is good for everyone.

    – Black Nova Scotians in Halifax are not Caribbean. The Black Loyalists are an important part of Maritime/Canadian history.

  5. Tamar Myers says:

    I don’t want to get into a long explanation, but beyond confusing Code restrictions concerning employment with education, you would also be wrong about it being illegal to collect race data from job applicants.

    More and more Ontario universities are collecting voluntary diversity self identification information from job applicants, most after getting legal opinions and some in consultation with the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

    The main issue is whether you are collecting the information to address disadvantages of marginalized groups – see Ontario Human Rights Commission info on special programs. And as the Ontario Human Rights Commissioner, and others who have replied to this opinion piece have said, how do you even know who is disadvantaged and what is disadvantaging them unless you collect the data?

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