Aboriginal Self-Identification and Student Data in Ontario’s Postsecondary System: Challenges and Opportunities

Research Summary:

New data collection methods will improve evaluation of Aboriginal student access programs

While the Province of Ontario has a number of initiatives to increase Aboriginal student participation in postsecondary education (PSE), improving data collection methods will provide more reliable information on the effectiveness of access programs. 

Project Description 

The Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO) commissioned a study to help the provincial government determine the best way to collect data on Aboriginal PSE students.  Canada’s Aboriginal peoples are historically under-represented in PSE, although the population is proportionately younger and growing at a faster rate than the non-Aboriginal population. Augmenting existing methods of data collection, such as the province’s Multi-Year Accountability Agreement reports, the study suggests additional approaches and offers some cautionary notes on how data are collected and used.

Conducted by the Canadian Council on Learning, Aboriginal Self-Identification and Student Data in Ontario’s Postsecondary System: Challenges and Opportunities was based on a literature review, an analysis of current practices in Ontario and elsewhere, and an on-line survey of relevant staff at Ontario colleges and universities.

Findings/Policy Implications  

A uniform, system-wide approach to data collection can help achieve clear, comprehensive and comparable data, the study says. The adoption of a standardized self-identification question should be part of a data collection method used by all Ontario postsecondary institutions, ideally administered through a centralized process such as Ontario’s college and university application services.  The study notes that Aboriginal students, community members and organizations across the province should help develop the standardized question.

The study also suggests that the Ontario Education Number (OEN) system should be expanded across the postsecondary system. Currently, the OEN is a unique student identification number assigned by the Ministry of Education to each elementary and secondary student across the province for identification and tracking purposes.  While the study says this approach would improve educational data for all students, it would be particularly useful in measuring the effectiveness of government initiatives targeted at under-represented groups.

The purposes and uses of the information collected must be transparent, the study notes.  And even with a standardized question, a certain level of imprecision should be anticipated and accepted, in part due to the reluctance of some groups to self-identify in some circumstances.

​This study was conducted in 2009 by Stephanie Oldford, Research/Policy Analyst; and Charles Ungerleider, Director of Research and Knowledge Mobilization, Canadian Council on Learning.