Martin Hicks – Data in Quarantine

Higher education is often pitched as an investment — by individuals in their future, and by the public in a strong economy and an engaged citizenry.  Good investors do their homework and base their decisions on facts and data.  Does Canada have sufficient data to make healthy investment decisions in higher education?

As was underscored at HEQCO’s recent postsecondary National Data Symposium, we have a lot of data but they are effectively in quarantine.

Individual colleges and universities have plenty – generated at a granular level as they enrol and teach students, hire faculty and staff, and conduct research. Institutions are focussed primarily on their internal data holdings, used to run their operations.  They also care about their provincial data context for three reasons:  their provincial government is a steady funding partner; institutions therefore engage within each province as a club; and at the same time they also compete at the provincial level for enrolment and the money enrolment brings.

Provinces and territories in turn stockpile considerable data about their higher education systems because the Constitution renders each (not the federal government) responsible for higher education and they are making the big, ongoing public investments.  Much of their data are aggregated from the institutions within their borders.

Then there is the national scene – the perfect level at which to pull everything together for a big picture view.  Moreover, the federal government has skin in this game: it spends on research, student aid and the skills agenda.  But we do not know, with any accuracy, the most basic facts.  How many students are enrolled in Canada?  What do college and university completion rates look like across the country?  Which provinces have found ways to optimally balance competing goals of access, quality and productivity?

Who can fix these national data gaps?

Within the federal government, Statistics Canada has a hard-working group that cobbles together a national data base on higher education.  They are disadvantaged because they are far removed from both the institutional front line and the provincial stewardship role.  Underreporting is rampant, data are often published too late to be policy relevant, and key elements of the information mosaic are missing.  Despite these challenges there are bright lights of insight.  For example, by linking to federal tax data, federal investigators are finding new ways of mapping graduates’ labour market outcomes.

What about the institutions across Canada?  From time to time, they come together to assemble national data.  Four years ago, for example, Statistics Canada stopped collecting data on university faculty – information that is critical to benchmarking institutional productivity (such as faculty-to-student ratios) and to informing collective bargaining (such as comparable salary data).  Western University stepped up and recreated the data base and all Canadian universities have been invited to populate it.

But an institutional approach is not an ideal national solution. Multi-institutional data tend to be proprietary and guarded; not all universities see an advantage to participating so the national and interprovincial picture is again incomplete; and self-reporting is susceptible to charges of bias, especially in tense arenas like collective bargaining.

Another potential avenue for a robust national data set lies in the collective efforts of the provinces and territories, which historically haven’t shown much interest in the national data picture.  But that is changing as they all face growing pressure to educate more students at a higher quality threshold, and with less money – they need to make better investments.

Each alone has only a 1-in-13 chance of generating the best investment solution to any piece of the higher education puzzle, and so each is better served by learning from the others. But to expand their presence and take on a national data role would require the agreement of 13 governments – chronically elusive – and money, also chronically elusive.

Alternatively, provinces could take a more active role in supporting Statistics Canada and connecting the three levels – institutional, provincial/territorial and federal.  For example, Ontario addressed historic underreporting by its community colleges by having them report first to the province for funding purposes – a proven incentive to comply – and then forwarding the data to Ottawa to populate the national data set.

Cooperation between 14 governments at two levels is complicated, but it does happen: The Council of Ministers of Education, Canada already engages with Statistics Canada to publish an annual Education Indicators in Canada, and the 14, along with institutions across Canada, long ago found a way to jointly fund and cooperatively administer student aid.

Provinces and territories are the principal public investors in higher education.  It’s on them to lead in improving the national data picture and liberate data from quarantine.  Higher education is increasingly framed in a national and global perspective; it’s no longer good enough to think provincially or territorially.

-Martin Hicks, Executive Director, Data & Statistics

3 replies on “Martin Hicks – Data in Quarantine”

Thanx very much for this most helpful post. I would have assumed that the federal government would be interested in national data to inform the effectiveness of federal financial aid, but apparently not.

As someone who teaches at the secondary level, I think data can really make a positive change at all levels of education. However, below post-secondary, we track prior student statistics (i.e. last year’s EQAO data) to inform future pedagogy and curriculum needs. Without a more holistic picture – a continuum of data through all levels, we run the risk of compartmentalizing education into the various divisions, and struggling with each group looking at gaps and how to address them in a reactive, rather than proactive way. We might benefit from a more integrated discussion perspective.

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