Léo Charbonneau – How is Canada’s PSE system doing? Probably OK, but it would be useful to have more research to know for sure

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Léo Charbonneau, Guest blogger

According to its most recent annual report (PDF, pg. 26), the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario received roughly $5.5 million in operating funds from the provincial government for the 2012-13 fiscal year. The amount of quality research the council is able to conduct with that relatively modest sum is impressive. More than 90 percent of its funding goes to research activities, the rest to governance and administration.

Its latest research paper, released January 6, is a case in point. Entitled Still Worth It After All These Years, the report found that students who graduated from university after the 2008-2009 economic downturn were better protected from unemployment than high school-only graduates. “While things got harder for everyone [during the downturn], the relative advantage for those with a degree actually improved as times got tougher,” say the report’s authors.

Combing through and combining the publicly available data for these sorts of studies is always a bit of a challenge, and in this instance the authors included a mix of data from Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey; the Council of Ontario Universities’ University Graduate Employment Survey; the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities; and Employment and Social Development Canada.

Other recent reports from HEQCO include:

  • a pilot study that attempted to gather meaningful data on the employment outcomes of recent doctoral graduates;
  • a look at the “current status, promising practices and emerging trends” of outcomes-based funding (the linking of government funding to institutional performance based on identified outcomes);
  • three-part study that looked at job ads to help inform the debate over Canada’s so-called “skills gap”;
  • and a study that falls nicely within the category of the scholarship of teaching and learning that looked at the impact of various tools to enhance student engagement in a large history class.

And that was just over the last two months!

All of these various types of research are valuable and it makes we think how useful it would be to have an organization or institute somewhat akin to HEQCO but at the national level.

There are, of course, various bodies that conduct high-quality higher education research in Canada. Most notably, Statistics Canada conducts much original analysis in areas such as educational attainment, the outcomes of educationeducational financesfields of study, and so on. I do find, however, that some of the agency’s work lacks context, or that the implications of the research are often muted (in an attempt, I suspect, to not be accused of creating “spin”). I should also note the interesting recent work by Ross Finnie and his colleagues at the Education Policy Research Initiative at the University of Ottawa, which couldn’t have been accomplished without the partnership of StatsCan.

The Conference Board of Canada, too, has embarked on an ambitious research agenda through its Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education, a five-year initiative to examine “the advanced skills and education challenges facing Canada today.” Among its recent work was a report on the “state of skills and PSE” and a great little study on where Canada’s PhD graduates are employed (sample finding: just 19 percent are employed as full-time university professors). I’d also be remiss not to mention the research program of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, as well as the more modest efforts of the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education.

But, all of these together just don’t quite add up to a whole. Moreover, we suffer in Canada from a lack of many key data, particularly institutional data, related to postsecondary education. Perhaps I’m being unrealistic, but it seems to me a field of endeavour as important to a country as its higher education system merits a more sustained and better-resourced national research effort to ensure the sector is performing at a high level and achieving the goals set for itself, as well as those that the country and governments expect of it.

This blog originally appeared in Margin Notes published by University Affairs on January 13, 2015.

Our opinion is that the opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are their opinion, and not necessarily those of HEQCO.

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