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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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