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Speculative Diction

About those stats…

Melonie Fullick believes that the data on Canadian postsecondary education we have is flawed in ways that prevent us from fully describing the situation in relevant terms - which in turn has implications for policy.


I’ve written a couple of blog posts in the past about the lack of available data on Canadian postsecondary education, and the cuts to research that have reduced what information is available (and reliable). In some cases, the information does exist but it takes a lot of time-consuming fiddling to pull out the required numbers and make sense of them. Recently, the task of untangling the data on PhD employment was taken on by Dan Munro at the Conference Board of Canada, as part of the CBoC’s larger project on postsecondary education and skills.* While the results of this analysis have been interesting, it’s also become apparent that the numbers we do have are flawed in ways that prevent us from fully describing the situation in relevant terms – which in turn has implications for policy.

The following examples illustrate the kind of problems I’m talking about. In the first case, Dan Munro wrote a blog post after corralling the numbers on PhD employment outcomes. This kind of information could help answer what is a pressing question for many PhD students: how many PhDs are ending up with tenure-track faculty jobs? The post cites 18.6 percent as the proportion of PhDs who have full-time faculty jobs (data were from the 2011 National Household Survey). However, this number includes both tenure-track and tenured, and full-time contract faculty jobs.

There’s a real need to make a distinction here because PhDs tend to want a long-term (tenure-track) academic position, not a temporary one. What proportion of that 18.6 percent comprises faculty on short-term contracts? In the United States it seems that this group is increasing in size, but what about in Canada? The numbers don’t tell us what we want to know because while the category of work may be the same, in terms of practice and lived experience – i.e. what’s relevant to people actually working in this profession – there are significant differences. So why is the distinction not being made?

Another glaring problem is with Statistics Canada’s Canadian Occupation Projection System (COPS), which in theory is where we’d look if we wanted to know how the job market for academic positions is shaping up for the next five years or so. But here’s the weird part: COPS “projects a shortage of university professors (NOCS 4121) to 2020. It estimates that there will be 44,328 new job openings in this category between 2013 and 2020, but only 39,030 projected job seekers (comprised of new graduates and immigrants with PhDs)” (Dan Munro, personal email). This seems to fly in the face of everything we know about the academic job market at present, which is unlikely to change much in the next five years. How can Statistics Canada’s projections be so un-intuitive? We know the competition for academic jobs is keen, and even the abovementioned numbers on full-time faculty seem to confirm this. Why don’t the COPS numbers reflect it?

One issue is that these statistics don’t take into account graduates’ intentions. Statistics Canada asserts that “an appreciable number of workers are expected to seek opportunities in other occupations […] that are related to their studies and that offer better job opportunities.” But if we look at what PhDs want to be doing, what proportion of this group is seeking an academic job? Take for example a 2012 study in which Louise Desjardins found that “About two-thirds (65 percent) of Ontario graduates pursued a doctoral degree with the intention of becoming university professors”; in the humanities specifically, this number was 86 percent. Some PhDs stay on the job market for multiple years after graduation, holding down non-academic and/or part-time positions while they await a tenure-track opening. How does this square with the proportion – which is under 18.6 percent – who are working in tenured or tenure-track positions?

In a blog post about the COPS numbers, Alex Usher explains that “COPS isn’t very good at understanding how politics and public sector finances affect hiring in monopsonistic fields like education and health care.” Apparently so. But does this mean we should discard the model being used by Statistics Canada? Dan Munro explains that “as far as the model goes […] it’s not a mistake. Certain assumptions have to be made in order to make projections and, in most cases, these assumptions are reasonable. But in the specific case of ‘university professors’ one of the model’s assumptions just doesn’t make sense.” He argues that what the results need is context, which in turn requires further (and qualitative) research: “it’s less a question of “fixing” the model and instead using contextual awareness and qualitative analysis to understand specific sectors – i.e., supplement the model.”

As an example of this, reliable statistics on contract faculty would be very helpful in painting a picture of the larger context of academic work in Canada. Unfortunately, not only has the National Household Survey been altered; the University and College Academic Staff System (UCASS), which covered “full-time teaching staff in degree-granting institutions that are under contract for twelve months or more”, got the chop. We don’t have details about the proportion of faculty who are teaching on contract (either part-time or full-time), and we also don’t know how that number would break down in terms of the different types of contract positions available, in which institutions and academic fields, and in terms of those profs’ reasons or motivations for taking on those jobs. There’s been comparatively little systematic investigation into the conditions of employment for contract faculty in Canada, even though their numbers have increased in the past 20 to 30 years.

Statistics are important; they can help us to piece together a picture of what the situation is for PhDs entering the job market, and what kinds of competition graduates face given the way hiring trends are unfolding. Considering the importance of these data, it’s amazing that no one else seems to have done this work until now. They may be flawed, but these statistics can help provide a basis for further investigation. If nothing else, the COPS numbers alert us to a discrepancy between how such things are being measured, and how they’re being experienced “on the ground” – pointing to a need to investigate this disconnect. Critically analyzing the available information is also important because the decontextualized statistics can be taken up politically and rhetorically, for example in arguments about the market for academic work in Canada.

Possibly revealing my “bias” as a qualitative researcher, I have to agree with Dan’s comment that “no matter how much ‘big data’ you collect, if you’re not asking the right questions in the right way, and drawing on expert interpretation and inference while analyzing, you’re probably going to miss some important features of the world.” This is just one reason why I’ll continue to argue that we need more numbers – but also that we always need more than numbers.

*This post has been informed by Dan’s generous feedback in an ongoing discussion of some of the issues involved, via e-mail and Twitter.

Melonie Fullick
Melonie Fullick is a PhD candidate at York University. The topic of her dissertation is Canadian post-secondary education policy and its effects on the institutional environment in universities.
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  1. Pacifica / February 16, 2015 at 18:14

    We must also talk about hiring practices in connection to the TFW program. Ottawa just made it easier for Canadian schools to hire non-Canadians for TT jobs. How is this going to affect Canadian graduates? How will this affect the Canadian adjuncts & sessionals who are already struggling to get by and who are doing the majority of teaching at Canadian Universities!?!?

    How are Canadian schools going to account for the vast difference in funding and teaching opportunities in Canada vs the USA? Will they think about this as the write up their report in justification of an American hire? Will they think about the Canadian adjunct making 1/4 of the TT prof and who is teaching 3x as much? But this adjunct isn’t “good enough” for the TT position?

    Why do Canadian schools even have MA and PhD programs if we are not even interested in hiring our own graduates? How do taxpayers feel about this use of gov’t funds/ taxpayer dollars? Are we happy that our money is being used to train graduates who are then only good enough to be exploited as adjuncts and sessionals? Is it true that our graduates are not good enough to be hired as TT profs with research support and benefits? How is any of this fair or ethical?

  2. Kean / February 18, 2015 at 09:53

    Dan Munro’s piece seems confusing to me. He claims:

    “As the chart shows, nearly 40 per cent of Canada’s PhDs are employed in the post-secondary education (PSE) sector in some capacity—as full- or part-time university professors, research and teaching assistants, full- or part-time college instructors, or postdoctoral scholars”.

    How does that figure stack up against the 18.6% one?

    When you talk about short-term contracts, does that include sessional (i.e. single course contracts) AND year or two-year contractual positions? Or is it just sessional positions?

    • Dan Munro / February 18, 2015 at 12:10

      Thanks for the comment, Kean. The full post can be found here: But let me try to unpack a few things.

      The % of FT university professors, as you note, is 18.6%. Other PhDs employed in the PSE sector include PT profs (6.1% of all PhDs), those employed as research or teaching assistants (7.4%), those employed as college or polytechnic faculty (2.9%), and postdoctoral scholars (4.4%). Add all those and you get 39.4% employed in some capacity in PSE institutions. The other 60.6% are employed in diverse careers outside the academy.

      Unfortunately (and this I think is partly the point of Melonie’s piece), the data we have available to produce even this kind of chart (e.g., StatCans National Household Survey) doesn’t line up with kinds of categories that we who study the sector would find meaningful. So in NHS “full-time professors” would include anyone who selected professor as their occupation and said that they worked full-time hours in that occupation in 2011. As you know, that could include lots of PhDs who have only 1-year contract positions, but who work “full-time” hours–says, for example, because they teach 5 full courses. The data set doesn’t tell us how many, among FT profs, are tenure-track or non-TT. Obviously, those distinctions matter and it would be helpful if data were collected with those distinctions in mind. Again–the point of Melonie’s piece, if I read it correctly.

      In short, I’ve done the best I can do with the data available. I think it adds some clarity that we didn’t have before, but I agree with Melonie that better data needs to be collected and shared by governments and institutions.

      • Kean / February 18, 2015 at 15:43

        Thanks Dan, that is much clearer. I thought I’d read you’re piece but I think it was a different one.

        I agree that the empirical issue is about identifying TT vs. non-TT positions. It’s interesting to note that RAs & TAs are such a large category, as I’m guessing a significant proportion of them are sessional positions too (i.e. not PT but definitely temporary and insecure).

        On another note, being an immigrant PhD myself, I’d find it interesting to see a breakdown by Canadian vs. immigrant. Any way to do that? Did I miss it again?

        Do you have time series as well?

        (Apologies for all the questions!)

  3. Kean / February 18, 2015 at 10:06

    … also, call me stupid, but how is education a monoposony? Implies that there’s only one buyer and many suppliers. Who’s doing the buying (of what) and who the selling (of what)? If the supplier is a potential faculty member then there are plenty of buyers (i.e. universities), in Canada and worldwide. I simply don’t get that characterization.

  4. Andrew Gow / February 18, 2015 at 19:57

    A very useful piece. My guess is that COPS numbers do not take into account those Canadian Ph.D. grads who take academic positions in other countries, nor those Canadian who do Ph.D. work elsewhere, wherever they might get jobs. Therefore, total academic employment of Canadians with Ph.D.s is probably somewhat higher than reported, perhaps as high as the 1/3 of Ph.D. grads who were typically expected, in decades gone by, to find academic positions.

    As for vacancies: the first boomers (born 1946 and after) turned 65 in 2011. Boomers are now retiring at a steady pace. But the largest Canadian baby-boom birth cohort was born with me in 1962. The frontrunners will retire at 55 in 2017, and that huge cohort, along with the very large ones of 1960, 1961 and 1963, will continue to retire until 2029, when we turn 67 and can can draw all government sources of income. A massive wave of retirements is now just beginning; it will crest before 2029 and ebb after that. Unfortunately, too many universities are plugging budget gaps by not replacing those of us who are now retiring or soon will…

  5. Bobby Thomas Cameron / April 27, 2016 at 19:45

    Hi Melonie,

    Great article, I appreciate that you were able to bring attention to this issue. One question, the shortage of university professors related to NOCS 4121 link brings you to a description of “Data entry clerks & Desktop publishing operators and related occupations (1422)”. I was wondering if you could provide the correct link here with respect to COPS projecting a shortage of university professors.

    Thank you

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