Congress 2015: The Canadian higher education data problem

Every year at the Canadian Society for Studies in Higher Education (CSSHE) meeting, you can count on someone – or a lot of someones – complaining about the state of higher education data in Canada. And with good reason- Canada lags behind its OECD in the amount and quality of higher ed data produced. Researchers and policymakers in this county have an awful time trying to find usable figures to support their work.

This year, a whole panel session was convened to examine Canada’s data problem. Moderated by University Affairs editor Leo Charbonneau and featuring Ross Finney, Glen Jones, Michelle Nelson, and Alexandre Beaupre-Lavallee, the panel rehashed the old complaints. Federal data collected by Statistics Canada through surveys is either disappearing or declining in quality; administrators jealously guard institutional data; and there is no attempt to coordinate data collection and distribution within or between provinces (with some exceptions).

But the panel also featured a note of – dare I say it – optimism. Ross Finney was keen to point out that huge opportunities exist with the large amounts of institutional data being collected. While currently trapped within universities and not available in easily cross-comparable forms, it is possible to release and mobilize this information. The challenge is developing effective and collaborative strategies for getting this information moving in a useful way.

Part of the problem is that researchers aren’t always aware of the many possible sources of higher education data. Michelle Nilson, from Simon Fraser University, presented a new resource that seeks to bring these disparate sources together in one handy reference. The Compendium of Canadian Postsecondary Data Sources is an important first step in helping researchers navigate the available data.

The panel also hinted that Canada may need a dedicated higher education data system overseen by some sort of a data agency. I’m a fan of this idea, and I think we should look to the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). Organizing this system at the Federal level makes sense for a few reasons. First, it would allow a national level overview of higher education, something that is sorely lacking in the Canadian context. Second, because the Federal government has no constitutional skin in the postsecondary game (yes, they provide a huge amount of research funding through granting councils, but that role doesn’t really touch on system design, support, or performance), a national-level agency would be elevated among the politicized and short-term policy discussions that occur in the provinces.

Whatever the answer, we need access to good data to do good research and make good policy. The data problem in Canada is well known, so it was nice to see a panel session moving towards solutions.