Martin Hicks — Postsecondary data and the public domain

Martin Hicks is HEQCO’s executive director, data and statistics.

We recently asked Ontario universities for some data that would allow us to calculate how much salaries paid to continuing full-time faculty have been increasing in recent years. We did not ask for individual records, of course, — we understand personal privacy — but only aggregations at the institutional and provincial level.

The universities said no. They said this data would be misleading. They said no other sector is asked to publish data on salary growth this way. They said this data is sensitive.

In the United States, the American Association of University Professors publishes salary growth this way. The Ontario sunshine list publishes actual salaries for all public-sector employees earning over $100,000 — with effort, these can be lined up to study aggregate change over time for the majority of continuing university faculty (something , in fact, we are doing). Similar information can be easily assembled for Ontario teachers from salary grids published in collective agreements.

Over my 30 year career in service to them, Ontario universities and colleges have again and again said “no” to sharing data about themselves.

In the case of universities, they remind us that they are autonomous institutions. Their establishing acts grant them self-governance over a broad set of objects. They are legally accountable to their own boards and senates. That is to be respected.

But a parallel construct deserves our respect and consideration as well.

Universities and colleges (as they themselves often remind us) are also a public good and an integral component of the public mosaic. They receive revenues directly or indirectly from the people through provincial and federal governments. Students contribute tuition, set by government as a matter of public policy, and subsidized by a publicly funded student-aid system. The term “MUSH” to describe the public sector expands to Municipalities, Universities, Schools and Hospitals. Universities and colleges are routinely included in public-sector umbrella initiatives from freedom of information regulations to ombudsman oversight. In the grand social contract, they play an important and broad role serving individual Ontarians and the collective economy.

From this emerges a responsibility of institutional accountability and transparency. That this duty is not explicitly set out in legislative texts is irrelevant. The duty is core to the broader social contract to which our public postsecondary institutions are party. The academy sits not apart from us; it is a part of us.

Historically in Ontario, we have been too quick to retreat from asking important questions of our colleges and universities such as: What is the return on the public’s and students’ investments? How productive are your employees and operations? What are your learning and research outcomes?

Public higher education is so critical to the future of our students, province and country that the default state should be to share the important data we have to improve the system, increase its quality and make it more sustainable.

Martin Hicks is HEQCO’s executive director, data and statistics.

2 replies on “Martin Hicks — Postsecondary data and the public domain”

1. At one time you could acquire these data from Statistics Canada, though I believe that program was gutted under Harper, Canada’s great lover of evidence-based research. Hmm. A web search reveals this link for 2016/17 data: . Evidently the survey was stopped in 2011, and re-instated in 2016.

Rhetorically, your missive would be stronger if you actually stated whether or not you bothered to look for these data, and if so, why they are not appropriate.

For the interested reader, perusing that link leads one to CANSIM Table 477-01231, which in turn reveals aggregated salary data of full-time faculty members at each university. This link ( , though Google it if cut and paste failed). As an economic geographer, I wish we had that kind of data for firms! For heaven’s sake, firm-level salary data, even if it didn’t include contract workers, would be amazing to have for researchers, workers and each firm’s competitors, as well as other jurisdictions that wanted to poach those jobs. I bet universities and colleges never worry about what their competitor institutions are up to….

2. What I would also like to see, but which is only obliquely related to your direct question (but not HEQCO’s implicit working hypothesis that universities and colleges are “doing it all wrong” and responsible for “all the graduates that can’t get jobs”) are data on how much firms spend on training. Such data would be useful for further confirming 2013 findings by the Conference Board of Canada that Ontario firms’ expenditure on training fell in the first decade of this century, as suggested by page 23 of the document found at .

Unfortunately, because they stop in 2010, we don’t know if this downward trend was primarily an impact of the global recession, or a continuation of secular trend. I suspect it is a secular trend related to increasing use of contingent work. However, if firms aren’t willing to train their own workforce in at least firm-specific skills, then I smell a free-rider problem that is not the fault of the higher education sector.

3. And let’s be clear: from a workforce development perspective, universities prepare students to be life-long learners (and frankly, sometimes occupation-specific skills in things like planning, nursing, accounting and the like), while colleges provide a coherent skill-set for a given occupation or industry. If we take the larger view, analytically these correspond broadly to general skills (and their associated habits and dispositions) and occupation- or industry-specific skills. This doesn’t mean that universities and colleges can’t do a better job, but it does mean that the higher education sector is at best only partially responsible for allegations that workers are unprepared for entry-level positions (ignoring for a moment the apocryphal claims of entry-level positions that require three years of experience). Likewise, the higher education sector does not wield a crystal ball that reveals when and where which skills will be in demand and in what quantity. If we did, it would make curriculum design much easier.

4. Given that it takes students some time to develop the skills needed for life-long learning, let along a specific occupation or industry, students need to enter a labor market where their employer is willing to invest in training their new hire to deal with how the firm responds to current market conditions.

But let’s return to the skillsets of life-long learning or those particular to a specific industry or occupation. Whether or not students develop those skills is already measured by [a] if they graduate and [b] their marks. Good luck getting those data. But if you do, I’d love to see it! Frankly, if students knew their university or college performance could be accessed through an incorruptible third-party (with appropriate controls of course) by potential employers perhaps some students would also take university and college more seriously. Perhaps HEQCO could fill that role? While we are at it, perhaps HEQCO could also act as a central repository for all charges of academic misconduct, and likewise reveal those to potential employers? Advocating for the SAT or ACT to augment high school marks for entrance to university? Any of these would make the teaching component of my job as a professor more effective.

Jeff Boggs

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