Assessing government investment in graduate education: address the data gaps
Over the past decade, the federal and some provincial governments have made considerable investments in graduate education. But while available data identify enrollment trends, there is a notable lack of data on other important aspects of graduate education such as employment outcomes, according to a new report from the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.
The report, Intentions For and Outcomes Following a Decade of Government Investment in Graduate Education , calls for additional investment in data acquisition– both to assess the effectiveness of the increased investment and of the graduate education itself. “Governments should spend the money to obtain and disseminate the necessary data to assess the accomplishments of their investments,” say the report’s authors.
Through a literature review and data analysis, this report investigates the changes in graduate enrolments and graduate degrees granted by degree level, gender, immigration status (Canadian or international), province and field of study from 1998 through 2010. It links these changes to federal and provincial government policy statements and subsequent investments in graduate education. Financial data were predominantly collected through direct contact with various universities, provincial ministries and each of the three federal research granting councils. Changes in enrolment and degrees granted were obtained through Statistics Canada’s Postsecondary Student Information System data.
At the federal level, expenditures in graduate scholarships from 1999 to 2010 (beyond 1998 base amounts) exceeded $850 million. Provincially, scholarships and operating investments targeted to graduate enrolment expansion (also beyond 1998 base amounts) totaled more than $1.9 billion.
Compounding the lack of data on graduate student outcomes, the authors also note a scarcity of measurable objectives for graduate investment. For example, at the federal level, objectives ranged from ‘developing the most skilled and talented labour force in the world,’ which the authors describe as immeasurable, to very specific numerical targets such as: ‘increase the admission of master’s and PhD students at Canadian universities by an average of 5% per year.’
“Despite our efforts at data collection, with the cooperation of various agencies and governments, and our detailed analysis, we can identify with certainty only a very limited set of outcomes that these significant investments achieved. In some cases it was difficult to identify what exactly they were intended to achieve,” say the authors.
Available data do point to some clear trends, according to the report. Since 2003, the rate of growth in PhD enrolment has outpaced master’s enrolment, with a larger decline in part-time students at the PhD level than the master’s level. Women comprise a larger proportion of graduate school enrolment, while international student numbers increased at a faster rate than Canadian numbers.
For the most part, those provinces that explicitly funded graduate growth experienced growth in line with the funding. The bulk of the graduate expansion took place among the U15 (a group of Canadian research-intensive universities) and other large universities. While STEM disciplines did not dominate the growth at the master’s level, they do at the PhD level. Business dominates master’s enrolments and physical and life sciences dominate doctoral enrolments.
“Overall, only a few of these outcomes are surprising,” say the authors. “Provinces that invested in graduate expansion were successful in accomplishing it and in some cases expanded their share of the national graduate enrolment. The Canada Graduate Student awards seem to have been successful in encouraging enrolment at the PhD level, but did not have the same effect at the master’s level.”
The authors note a number of areas that could not be addressed with available data, including employment outcomes and changes in the nature of graduate education such as the introduction of transferable skills (and the consequence of such changes for employment outcomes).
“It is important for the future to develop better data on such matters, in order to have a better understanding of the contribution of graduate education to the country – and of the effect that increased investment has on graduate education and graduate degree recipients,” say the authors. “We would recommend that policy statements be clear and that government investment be linked with a commitment to collect the data necessary to measure results.”
Authors of Intentions For and Outcomes Following a Decade of Government Investment in Graduate Education are Fred L. Hall; and Hillary Arnold of the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario.