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The university sector cheers reinstatement of the UCASS survey

The lack of a national survey of academic staff has been “a huge data gap” in Canada, says one researcher.

By NATALIE SAMSON | SEP 28 2016

If there’s one thing that unites the university sector it’s good data. The reinstatement of the University and College Academic Staff System survey, announced by Minister of Science Kirsty Duncan earlier this month at Western University, is being touted as welcome news by higher education researchers, faculty members, university administrators and bureaucrats alike.

“The reintroduction of the UCASS survey is a wonderful step forward,” said Glen Jones, who holds the Ontario Research Chair in Postsecondary Education Policy and Measurement and is dean of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. “This has been a huge gap in our data systems in Canada. Our ability now to continue having good, solid national data on faculty by rank, by salary, by age – it’s really an important element for our ability to understand Canadian higher education.”

“We’re not just bringing it back, we’re going to be expanding … to include colleges and part-time faculty”

The survey was first introduced in 1937 and required institutions to report, among other things, the age, gender, professional rank, year of appointment and years since last promotion for every full-time faculty member serving a term of no less than 12 months. Reported salary information has been particularly important for both faculty associations and university administrations during collective agreement negotiations. Data has also been used by university stakeholders to track employment patterns, such as gender balance within faculties or the number of professors approaching retirement age.

“Can you imagine health-care policy emerging without any sense of the number of medical doctors that you have and the areas of specialization that they’re in?” said Dr. Jones by way of comparison.

For governments to be able to develop sound higher education policy – for example, around issues of program expansion, faculty workload or gender equity – “this is the database that they would use as a basis for those conversations,” said Dr. Jones. “I think policymakers recognize that [faculty members] are central to our discussions of innovation and of research and development in Canada, and that we need at least the most basic data on this category of employee.”

As part of the reinstatement, Statistics Canada will explore how to widen the scope of UCASS. “We’re not just bringing it back, we’re going to be expanding … to include colleges and part-time faculty,” said Minister Duncan.

Though attempts have been made by Statistics Canada in the past to include part-time university instructors and college faculty, there has never been consistent, up-to-date national data available on these employee groups. Heather Dryburgh, director of tourism and the centre for education statistics at Statistics Canada, said the agency will consult with stakeholders on new and emerging data needs, including “a full discussion on what do we mean when we talk about part-time faculty. How do we define it and how can we all agree on a common definition so that the data are comparable and harmonized across the country?” She said she anticipates that this will be a multi-year process involving the federal and provincial governments, researchers, education advocacy groups, and university and college administrators. She also foresees Statistics Canada introducing standalone pilot projects to collect this data while consultations continue.

Survey revival is made possible through reallocation of funds within the department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada

The UCASS survey was cancelled under the 2012 federal budget by a government looking to cut costs. According to Statistics Canada, the cost of administering UCASS is about $500,000 a year. Dr. Dryburgh said the survey’s revival is made possible through a reallocation of funds within the department of Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada. “It’s not cutting out another survey or anything like that from their existing activities,” she said.

In the winter of 2014, staff at Western University stepped in to bridge the information gap by approaching institutions directly to collect and disseminate virtually the same information as Statistics Canada for an annual membership fee. “We’ve been doing it in Ontario for about 12 years,” said James MacLean, who works in institutional planning and budgeting at Western. “We’ve been the caretaker for UCASS data through the Ontario Council of Academic Vice-Presidents. We have an Ontario consortium where we exchange UCASS data and prepare reports for [council] members, so we already had a process in place.”

Eventually, Western dropped “six or seven data elements” from its survey, including reporting on clinical faculty – doctors who are affiliated with teaching hospitals. “What we found was that there was absolutely no consistency on what each university was reporting,” he said.

For the current collection year, Statistics Canada will rely on the survey data that Western has already begun collecting, which means the university will be contacting each reporting institution for consent to release its data to the federal agency. Statistics Canada will fill in any holes in the data from there and release its reports in April. Data will be released by Statistics Canada in the same fashion as before: aggregated and randomized data will be provided to the general public, and researchers or organizations can request specific data or datasets from the agency.

“We are also looking at our research data centres program, which we have in about 27 universities across the country, and how we could make the UCASS data available in those centres,” Dr. Dryburgh said. “It does expand the usefulness of the data if we can put it there and researchers can publish using those files. That’s a longer-term goal that I’m ensuring we’re putting some energy into it.”

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