Last week Statscan sent me a consultation form asking my opinions about their ideas on how to change UCASS (the University and College Academic Staff Survey, which like most Statscan products containing the word “college” does not actually include the institutions most of us call “colleges” i.e. community colleges). I’ve already said something about this effort back here to the effect that focussing so much effort on data collection re: part-time staff is a waste of time, but the consultation guide makes me think Statscan is heading into serious trouble with this survey reboot for a completely different set of reasons.
Remember that when the money for all this was announced, the announcement was made by our Minister of Science, Kristy Duncan. One of her priorities as Minister has been to improve equity outcomes in scientific hiring, particularly when it comes to things like Canada Research Chairs (see here for instance). The focus of her efforts has usually been gender, but she’s also interested in other equity populations – in particular, visible minorities, Indigenous peoples, and persons with disabilities. So one of the things she charged Statscan with doing in this revived UCASS (recall that Statscan cut the program for five years as a result of Harper-era cuts) is to help shine a light on equity issues in terms of salaries, full-time/part-time status, and career progression.
This is all fine except for one tiny thing. UCASS is an not a questionnaire-based instrument. It’s an administrative survey. That means institutions fill in a complicated set of sheets to provide Statscan with hundreds of different aggregated data cuts about their institution (what is the average salary of professors in Classics? How many professors in chemical engineering are female? Etc). In order to use UCASS to address the demographic questions Duncan wants answered, institutions would first need to know the answer themselves. That is, they would need to know precisely which instructors have disabilities, or which are “visible minorities”, just as they currently know everyone’s gender. Which means they would need to find a way to make such disclosures mandatory, otherwise they would not be able to report to Statistics Canada.
I tried this idea out on my twitter audience over the weekend. Let’s just say it did not go over very well. A significant number of responses were, essentially: “over my dead body do I give this information to my employer. If Statscan wants to know this, they can ask me directly.”
Well, yes, they could I suppose, but then the resulting data couldn’t be linked to administrative information on rank and salary without getting each faculty member’s permission, which I can see not always being forthcoming. In addition, you’d have all sorts of non-response bias issues to deal with, especially if they tried to do this survey every year – my guess is most profs would simply ignore the survey after year 2. And yes, you’d have to do it frequently because not all disabilities are permanent.
Here’s my suggestion. Statscan should actually do two surveys. Keep UCASS more or less the way it is, extend it to colleges (some of whom will take a decade to report properly but that’s life) and part-timers (if they must – frankly, I think more people would be interested in data on non-academic staff than in data on part-time staff) but don’t mess around with the basic structure or try to force professors into reporting on their demographic characteristics – other than gender, which is already in there – to their employers because that’s just more trouble than it’s worth. Then, every five years or so, do a second survey so in which you take a demographic snapshot of the professoriate as a whole. It will have mediocre completion rates, but it’s better than nothing.
(In fact, universities and colleges could do this themselves if they wanted to at a cost much lower than whatever Statscan will end up paying, but since they almost never collaborate on creating public data without a gun to their heads it seems like some federal intervention is inevitable if anyone wants this done).
This is not what Minister Duncan asked for, I know. But it’s the only way to get her the data she wants without causing mayhem on campuses. Hopefully, pragmatism will prevail here.