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In my opinion

Universities have a serious data gap on race

How can we tell if there’s a problem if we don’t measure it?


Last month two reports based on data from the Toronto District School Board have highlighted the insights that might be gained from giving attention to how race operates in the educational experiences and achievement of students. Carl James’s study (PDF) shows that Black students in the Greater Toronto Area are more likely to be streamed into non-academic programs, and a study by Ruben Gaztambide-Fernandez showed schools for the arts disproportionately serve wealthy white students. This data gives an indication of the kinds of students who eventually make it to university.

In fact, other data from the TDSB – analyzed by Karen Robson’s Gateway Cities team – show that Black students are much less likely to access post-secondary education. This should be a matter of direct concern to universities and colleges, and raises questions about their policies and practices for outreach and admission as well as issues in secondary school.

To its credit, the TDSB is one of about two school boards in Canada that provides data that enables us to examine the educational trajectory of students by race. There is an absence of similar comprehensive information about postsecondary students.

A recent report showed 63 of 76 Canadian universities could not provide data about their racial demographics – because they haven’t asked their students. It is ironic that institutions dedicated to inquiry and intellectual pursuit, and invested in the promotion of research to provide the evidence behind policies and action, have not collected and publicly reported on the racial demographics of their students.

Expressions of support for diversity that aren’t backed up by data represent a profound failure of universities to accept their obligations under human rights law.  According to the Race Policy and Guidelines (PDF) of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, collection of data about race, Aboriginal status, sexual orientation and disability is not just permissible, but “necessary.”

Legal equality guarantees are not merely shields against discriminatory acts, but a sword for cutting down system-wide barriers. Statistical data is required to monitor discrimination, identify and remove systemic barriers, and track progress towards substantive equality.  Yet across Canada most educational institutions have hesitated to collect the data required to meet human rights standards.

Unease about measuring or even talking about race is part of a much bigger Canadian tendency to deny that race matters. Often considered “rude” or something only important in other countries (i.e. the U.S.), the inability to engage in conversations around how race matters is a substantial barrier to confronting the obstacles facing racialized groups.

The TDSB’s stance on collecting race data is important.  First, the board’s comprehensive demographic data points to the diversity of today’s student population – something that all institutions need to recognize if they are to effectively serve their population of students.

Secondly, TDSB’s record of years of race-based data collection demonstrates the obvious point that collecting data on race is not, as some administrators appear to claim, “illegal” or forbidden under laws governing privacy or education. There appears to be widespread misinformation that asking students about race or even gender on admissions applications is somehow a violation of rights. It is not.

While all Canadian provinces have strict rules governing the collection and use of personal information, those rules are designed on the principle of consent. As demonstrated by the TDSB, universities have the power to collect information about race – and other grounds of discrimination – by asking students to provide this information and providing information about how the data will be used.

Surely, academic leaders – themselves researchers – should not be passive in the face of misinformation about the legalities of asking simple questions. Indications that the University of Toronto and Ryerson University will start collecting data are a good first step, but for this data to be as useful as possible we need comparable, public data across the sector as a whole.

In 2017, when something matters to an institution, it gets measured.  The failure to collect and make public data on race suggests that our institutions are either uncomfortable confronting their shortcomings at achieving diverse classrooms and institutions, or shockingly indifferent to improving our record on equal opportunity in public institutions of learning.

Carl James holds the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community & Diaspora at York University;  Karen Robson is an associate professor of sociology and holds the Ontario Research Chair in Educational Achievement and At-Risk Youth at McMaster University; and Kelly Gallagher-Mackay is an assistant professor of law and society at Wilfrid Laurier University.

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  1. J-B Sganarelle / May 24, 2017 at 17:45

    It is not at all “ironic that institutions dedicated to inquiry and intellectual pursuit, […] have not collected and publicly reported on the racial demographics of their students” because such information is completely and utterly irrelevant to the mission of the university. The role of the university is to impart the methodologies and essential background knowledge of a student’s chosen field, not to act as some sort of unofficial and ineffectual census bureau.
    If there are indeed systemic barriers to entry into universities, then academics interested in redressing such injustices should conduct research on how schools and society at large could better prepare potential students from those groups for the demands of university education, if indeed members of those groups are interested in university in the first place. It is NOT up to universities to tailor the demands of their programs and degrees, but up to our public education system to prepare the next generation of students for higher education (something it has utterly failed to do for decades). If university academics wish to reach out to school boards and ministries to try to improve this transition (which affects everyone since all students, no matter their demographic group, are woefully underprepared for university studies), then by all means go ahead. It is however unethical to strong-arm data for such research out of the whole of the student population. The authors argue that this information could be obtained on a voluntary basis, but if students believe that admission or access to a certain services is contingent on their complying with this “request” for information, they will interpret it as an order.
    I have some personal experience with this. In a previous job for a university writing centre, the administration determined that it could get more government funding if it could prove that it was supporting “first generation” students, and thus required all students using the centre to state whether or not they were “first generation”. First of all, many students didn’t understand what this meant. Many refused to answer once it was explained to them (with good reason it seems to me: what business is it of the university’s, and particularly of the writing centre’s, if their parents also went to university or not?). And in other cases, certain employees such as myself did not actually force students to provide this information (hence my having to find another job not long after… just as well, onwards and upwards!). All of which illustrates, it seems to me, that this data is by no means “voluntary” and that the data collected is not reliable.