So, you may have read something last week (perhaps this piece from the Globe and Mail) about Universities Canada’s members all getting together to sign up for a set of Principles on Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, and an associated Action Plan on Inclusive Excellence. There is lots of good stuff in these documents, and the promise made by Universities Canada to make public demographic data on faculty, staff and students. But, a warning: there may be less to this than meets the eye.
First, there is the evident gap between what Universities Canada takes on as “priorities” at its annual meetings and what it actually prioritizes when Finance comes around each year in terms of budget priorities. For instance, last year the big push was on Indigenous Education, and yet you’ll notice that this year’s three priorities in the Budget Ask are 1) research 2) research and 3) more research.
(Universities Canada submissions to the Finance Committee rigidly follow the rule of Monty Python’s Holy Hand Grenade: three priorities, no more no less. Four shalt thou not count, nor either count thou two, excepting that thou then proceed to three. Five is right out!)
But perhaps the biggest caution about the promise of this initiative stems from the fact that there seems to be some confusion about what the Action Plan actually commits the institutions to do, both singly and collectively. In an interview with Simona Chiose of The Globe and Mail, Universities Canada President Mike Mahon made what appeared to be some bold promises (“We will in essence challenge ourselves by being public with our data…An institution is going to say to itself, ‘If this data is going to be public, we want it to look as best as it can.’ It’s…called self-monitoring. If we have public self-monitoring, change will happen.” And given that the initiative is about recruiting more diversely in terms of students, faculty and staff, it sure seemed at first glance like this was a massive step forward in institutional transparency.
Think about it: for each institution to report on progress in making students, faculty and staff more diverse, you’d actually have to periodically do surveys of all three. Hell, to look at staff properly, you’d need to actually report on non-academic staff numbers, which 80% of institutions don’t do. This would be huge and quite excellent progress. Heck, if we got universities to do regular (anonymous) surveys of academic staff, it would sidestep all those problems with UCASS I talked about back here. And a regular, genuinely national survey of students would be an unparalleled opportunity to ask a couple of other questions of students, something we’ve been without since Statscan dropped the PEPS/ASETS survey and the Canadian Undergraduate Consortium abandoned its triannual survey of all students and replaced it with a MUCH less interesting survey of “middle-year” students (don’t ask). Actually collecting and publishing that data would be an enormous step in Canadian higher education data and one nearly everyone outside institutions would applaud and welcome.
Unfortunately, if it sounds to good to be true, it probably is. Folks at UnivCan provided me with a few needed caveats.
- There’s not going to be data on “staff”. There’s going to be data on “senior administrators”. The other 95% of employees are not covered by this.
- There’s no strategy to integrate this initiative with whatever the heck Statscan wants to do with UCASS.
- They don’t actually have any plans on how to measure diversity for faculty and students. They’re still consulting, with a view to doing one round of data collection in 2018 and another in 2022.
- There are no plans to make institutional-level data public. All the stuff in that Globe piece about making data comparable? They need comparability so that when UnivCan comes along and “surveys member institutions” (see the very careful wording in point 4 of the action program) it can roll up the data and provide accurate data at the aggregate national level. It is not – repeat NOT – so anyone can compare and benchmark institutions against one another, which kind of explains Universities Canada CEO Paul Davidson’s statement that “We will be transparent and accountable, but I don’t think you’ll see us doing rankings and report cards.”
So: the principles are good, and it’s great to see institutions adopt them. Some data is better than no data. And the potential of a genuinely national student survey is HUGE if institutions choose to use it. But it’s a bit sad that Canadian universities appear to be spurning a golden opportunity to change our long-ingrained habits of data opacity. Governing a survey on equity and inclusion using old-style Cover Your Ass principles would be a terrible shame.
The good news though, though is that none of this is set in stone and there is still time for everyone to reconsider. I know lots of institutional heads read this blog: consider this my challenge to all of you to tip the balance of this project in favour of transparency.