Where’s the evidence?

As with most countries, Canada’s universities are increasingly important to the nation’s economic and social development. Indeed, their central role in recruiting skilled labour was evident in February when the government altered its new immigration laws to provide universities with more freedom to recruit their own personnel.

But while the strength of the university lobby can count this recent concession a success, we should question why governments make policy decisions that are changed ex post facto to suit universities.

This dilemma is brought on by ever diminishing research capacity and data infrastructure. Simply put, government decisions lack evidence to back them and little is being done to improve this.

Since the removal of the mandatory long-form census in 2010, scholars and policy-makers have voiced concerns about the declining research culture at the federal level.

Some suggest that limited financial capacity has required the government to cut funding to university research divisions. Others point to the extreme extent of these cuts as clear evidence that government is systematically removing scientific research on the state of the country.

Government lacks capacity

Whether the root of the problem is financial, an attack on science, or perhaps both, it is clear the federal government currently has little research capacity, data infrastructure or dissemination tools to conduct or manage research. The result: policy decisions on higher education have limited data backing them.

A report outlining these problems was recently published by Dr Glen Jones, Ontario research chair in post-secondary education policy and measurement at the University of Toronto. Jones highlights key moments in the decline of Canada’s national data systems, beginning with funding cuts to Statistics Canada, which administered the long-form census.

Several key surveys and databases related to higher education have been discontinued, including the Youth in Transition Survey; the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth; Education Matters: Insights on Education, Learning and Training in Canada; and, most recently, the University and College Academic Staff System – the sole source of information on full-time faculty across the nation.

Jones’ article makes it painfully clear that Canada’s government now has little national-level information on its students and nothing at all on its faculty. The implications of this data-void are serious for Canada’s economic health and its social obligation to its citizens.

In the context of economic development, Canada’s universities account for one third of all the research and development expenditures, and numerous high profile innovations in technology and bio-medicine have emerged from university researchers.

Without available data on higher education across the country, Jones suggests that the academic community becomes fragmented and less productive as a collective. More detrimental to the educational success of students, however, is the lack of data on marginalised student groups and their participation in post-secondary education.

Jones points to Canada’s ageing population and the need to engage diverse groups in university and college, something that is impossible when data on the population does not exist.

Challenges of a decentralised system

In Canada, creating and maintaining national systems of data on higher education is already an uphill battle, without the government thwarting these efforts. The system is decentralised with post-secondary education the responsibility of the provinces. The main institutions are public, with universities being governed autonomously while provincial governments manage community colleges (responsible for technical and vocational training) more closely.

Thus, data collection on the sector happens in three fairly distinct spheres: institutions’ internal research offices, provincial ministries of post-secondary education and the dwindling statistical bodies of the federal government.

Also contributing to higher education research are third party stakeholders such as unions, professional associations and education faculties. It is this complex and diverse sector that needs a federal institution to facilitate data infrastructure and dissemination across the nation.

The path to evidence-based policy

The absence of federal databases is not something to be taken lightly in any nation. As Jones sharply notes: governments will continue to make decisions whether they are evidence-based or not. However, strategies to strengthen Canada’s federal research infrastructure on higher education will necessarily include a mix of advocacy and strategic research networking.

As recent negotiations over Canada’s immigration laws reveal, governments can be persuaded to reverse policy when the changes are shown to be in the national interest. In the case of higher education, universities and colleges need to re-assert the centrality of their contributions to Canada’s economic and social success.

And while the slow tugboat of advocacy pulls the federal government back on track, higher education researchers are already beginning to network and develop their own strategies for data sharing. Should the data infrastructure be re-instated, Canada’s researchers will ensure it is thoroughly populated.

Grace Karram Stephenson is a higher and international education specialist with the Comparative, International and Development Education Centre in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto in Canada.