CANADA

CANADA: Key bodies axed

Canada has put itself in a vulnerable position for making informed decisions about its university sector, say key higher education critics after three organisations dedicated to disseminating education analyses were axed.

The Canadian Council on Learning (CCL), an independent think-tank that has tried to present a pan-Canadian picture in the traditionally fractious provincially-run education systems, was the most recent victim. The council was told by the federal government it would not have its five-year C$85 million (US$80.4 million) grant renewed this spring.

The government department that made the cut said it did not think the CCL could provide a comprehensive enough learning information system and would like to see instead an organisation more responsive to Canadian needs.

The second victim was the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation (CMSF), brought in by the previous Liberal government in the late 1990s. The foundation handed out grants to low-income Canadians and ran a robust research wing that delved into student finance issues. The Conservatives recently replaced it with their own programme for low-income Canadians, minus the research arm.

The third body, the Canadian Policy Research Networks, among other things looked at the university sector through the job market by analysing supply-demand issues. It closed just last month after its funding had been cut.

This statistics dearth means more pressure on the government-run agency, Statistics Canada, which collects key data on higher education. But the agency has been facing its own funding difficulties and its important longitudinal study, the National Graduate Survey which follows graduates two and five years after they finish their studies, is long overdue for a new cohort.

There was a hope that Statistics Canada was about to solve the mystery as to how many part-time lecturers teach at the country's universities. The statistic had been difficult to attain because many universities were holding tightly to the potentially embarrassing information. The project was recently shelved because of a lack of funds.

Scott Murray, who retired from Statistics Canada in 2007 as Director General of social programmes, said the agency needed to double its current C$25 million budget if Canada was to be at the same level as other OECD countries. That would be on top of having a well-funded national coordinating agency to disseminate the information to stakeholders, something that went the way of the axed CCL.

The Canadian Association of University Teachers, along with the Canadian Federation of Students, called on the government to increase its funding to Statistics Canada. Executive Director James Turk said the lack of research funds for statistics gathering meant, for example, that Canada did not even know what percentage of its professors are black.

"If you want to assess employment equity in the public sector, there's no reliable info," said Turk, who added there was also no way of knowing the impact of higher tuition fees on enrolment by Canadians from a lower socioeconomic status background.

Turk cautioned there was a risk in putting too much stock in a government agency such as Statistics Canada which had an eye on selling its information. "StatsCan has more information available on pork bellies than on student demographics."

Arati Sharma, National Director of the Canadian Alliance of Student Associations (CASA) said money needed to be invested in the type of agency like those that had been cut. She cited one of the CMSF studies, comparing low-income high school students who were getting bursaries and information on university with those who were not, that had been quite complex to set up. She said her organisation could conduct surveys of its members but they would not measure up to the kind of studies she would see at the CMSF or CCL.

Sharma sees areas that need to be looked at and cites the example of the low summer employment rates for university students and the need to make up that work during the school year. "What's the long-term impact of increasing work during their studies? Are these students as likely to go on to postgraduate work?"

For Murray, the retired Statistics Canada Director, there are real value-for-money answers to be gleaned from more studies. "We have one of the highest participation rates in post-secondary education but a fairly high percentage of these kids had low literacy and numeracy rates. It would be good to see what they're getting out of this," said Murray.

CASA's Sharma said her organisation has tried to get the government to understand the problem of the lack of national statistics gathering and analysis and that they seem to understand the problem. But she has yet to see them come up with any concrete solutions.

philip.fine@uw-news.com

COMMENT:

This is a very sad development for those of us concerned about access to college as a central part of equal opportunity in societies increasingly polarised by education levels and in which increasingly costly college education without appropriate policies becomes a key part of intensifying intergenerational inequality.

Gary Orfield,
Professor and Co-Director,
Civil Rights Project,
University of California,
Los Angeles