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How is Canada’s PSE system doing?

Probably OK, but it would be useful to have more research to know for sure.

By LÉO CHARBONNEAU | January 13, 2015

According to its most recent annual report (PDF, pg. 26), the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario received roughly $5.5 million in operating funds from the provincial government for the 2012-13 fiscal year. The amount of quality research the council is able to conduct with that relatively modest sum is impressive. More than 90 percent of its funding goes to research activities, the rest to governance and administration.

Its latest research paper, released January 6, is a case in point. Entitled Still Worth It After All These Years, the report found that students who graduated from university after the 2008-2009 economic downturn were better protected from unemployment than high school-only graduates. “While things got harder for everyone [during the downturn], the relative advantage for those with a degree actually improved as times got tougher,” say the report’s authors.

Combing through and combining the publicly available data for these sorts of studies is always a bit of a challenge, and in this instance the authors included a mix of data from Statistics Canada’s Labour Force Survey; the Council of Ontario Universities’ University Graduate Employment Survey; the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities; and Employment and Social Development Canada.

Other recent reports from HEQCO include:

  • a pilot study that attempted to gather meaningful data on the employment outcomes of recent doctoral graduates;
  • a look at the “current status, promising practices and emerging trends” of outcomes-based funding (the linking of government funding to institutional performance based on identified outcomes);
  • a three-part study that looked at job ads to help inform the debate over Canada’s so-called “skills gap”;
  • and a study that falls nicely within the category of the scholarship of teaching and learning that looked at the impact of various tools to enhance student engagement in a large history class.

And that was just over the last two months!

All of these various types of research are valuable and it makes we think how useful it would be to have an organization or institute somewhat akin to HEQCO but at the national level.

There are, of course, various bodies that conduct high-quality higher education research in Canada. Most notably, Statistics Canada conducts much original analysis in areas such as educational attainment, the outcomes of education, educational finances, fields of study, and so on. I do find, however, that some of the agency’s work lacks context, or that the implications of the research are often muted (in an attempt, I suspect, to not be accused of creating “spin”). I should also note the interesting recent work by Ross Finnie and his colleagues at the Education Policy Research Initiative at the University of Ottawa, which couldn’t have been accomplished without the partnership of StatsCan.

The Conference Board of Canada, too, has embarked on an ambitious research agenda through its Centre for Skills and Post-Secondary Education, a five-year initiative to examine “the advanced skills and education challenges facing Canada today.” Among its recent work was a report on the “state of skills and PSE” and a great little study on where Canada’s PhD graduates are employed (sample finding: just 19 percent are employed as full-time university professors). I’d also be remiss not to mention the research program of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, as well as the more modest efforts of the Canadian Society for the Study of Higher Education.

But, all of these together just don’t quite add up to a whole. Moreover, we suffer in Canada from a lack of many key data, particularly institutional data, related to postsecondary education. Perhaps I’m being unrealistic, but it seems to me a field of endeavour as important to a country as its higher education system merits a more sustained and better-resourced national research effort to ensure the sector is performing at a high level and achieving the goals set for itself, as well as those that the country and governments expect of it.

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau has been the deputy editor of University Affairs since 2003. He started the Margin Notes blog in 2009 and it has gone on to win several awards, including Best Blog at the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.
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  1. Leo Charbonneau / January 15, 2015 at 9:04 am

    It appears I’m not the only one who dares to dream. Daniel Munro of the Conference Board tweeted that he, too, called for a national higher-education research body in his May 2014 report, Skills and Higher Education in Canada: Towards Excellence and Equity (PDF, see pg. 24). “To ensure that Canadian PSE institutions, employers, policy-makers and other stakeholders have access to independent expertise, research and advice on skills and higher education,” he proposes that “the federal government should establish an independent, arms-length Canadian Council on Skills and Higher Education (CCSHE).” The council would be supported by a research staff and independent skills and education experts who could:
    • convene expert panels to assess the state of knowledge and best practices in skills development and educational achievement and provide independent advice on how to tackle challenges in skills and higher education;
    • coordinate and report regularly on learning and skills outcomes in all provinces and territories (i.e., act as the coordinating body for a national learning outcomes assessment program);
    • conduct and share research and analysis on Canadian and international best and promising practices in skills development and pedagogy, with special attention to addressing concerns about excellence and equity;
    • convene meetings and summits of international experts to share experiences and promising strategies for improving skills and higher education outcomes; and
    • serve as a repository of knowledge and expertise from which educational institutions, employers and training organizations, governments, and other stakeholders could draw.

  2. Alexandre Beaupré / January 16, 2015 at 1:20 pm

    This is a very good idea, and certainly not a new one. Daniel Munro’s proposal was only the latest in a series of suggestions brought forward by every group, including students and faculty, regarding higher education.

    The one group that does resist those efforts and fights this idea with endless (sometimes ludicrous, often empty) counterproposals is the universities themselves. The difficulty researchers in higher education have to access the institutional data is immense. Efforts to kickstart this national project requires institutional seed money from institutions themselves in order to build up a network and a larger, more comprehensive proposal to be submitted to national research agencies. Yet, experience and hallways’ talk leads me to believe that institutions do not make efforts to help such an open, publicly accessible project happen. Instead, a lot of local initiatives are aimed at rather local goals, often strategic, competitive ones.

    This project needs to happen. It doesn’t matter who leads it. It will act as a beacon for every higher ed researcher and every research team (let’s include the UQAM’s CIRST and Manitoba’s CHERD in the grand scheme of things) will want to join in and form local sections of this national dream. Someone has to take a risk and, unfortunately, when it comes to research about themselves, institutions these days are risk-averse.

    Maybe that’s why we lose so many of our bright young researchers to the US and European faculty markets.

  3. Robert Coffey / January 22, 2015 at 12:18 am

    Policy-makers and institutional administrators wouldn’t be the only beneficiaries. As a U.S. based scholar whose research focuses on Canadian postsecondary education/policy, I would welcome the creation of a hub that could both support research activities and foster the development of scholarly networks.

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