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See no evil: policy-based evidence in Canadian higher ed

By MELONIE FULLICK | May 9, 2012

Over the past two years or so, I’ve been stewing quietly about a particular issue in Canadian education. Much of the recent media coverage about PSE in Canada is concerned with tuition costs and accessibility, faculty performance and salaries, government spending on education, and the various failings of the system. But alongside this, a campaign has been unfolding that promises to undermine efforts at understanding how Canadian education works and does not work, what happens to students throughout and after their studies, and where PSE funding should be directed for best effect. It’s a campaign, not of mis-information, but against information itself.

Some of you may have seen that one of my previous posts for this blog was a complaint about the lack of statistics on doctoral education in Canada. I’d been trying to write an essay on the path to the tenure track in Canada, and was having a hard time locating the numbers I needed (incidentally, the essay I wrote is here).

Most of the feedback I’ve received on that post has reinforced my sense that Canada lacks “the numbers” on post-secondary education. Then last week on his Margin Notes blog, Léo Charbonneau reported that Statistics Canada would be cutting yet another source of data about Canadian PSE — this time, the University and College Academic Staff System (UCASS) — in addition to ending the Education Matters publication.

When I say “yet another”, I’m referring to the fact that since 2009, research on post-secondary education in Canada has been undermined by a systematic elimination of resources. This list includes: the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation (CMSF), which was allowed to expire — with its mandate — in 2010; the Canadian Council on Learning (CCL), which had its funding cut in 2010; the Youth in Transition Survey (YITS), cut in 2010; the Statistics Canada long form, from the Census, also cut in 2010; and of course the Survey of Earned Doctorates (SED), which apparently ended in 2009. These are only the cuts of which I’m aware. Who knows what else may have been “discontinued”, de-funded, and dismantled (other recent examples: Library and Archives Canada, and the First Nations Statistical Institute).

What kind of logic lies behind cuts like these? The expiry of the CMSF, for example, could have been considered predictable “benign neglect” since the organization’s mandate was only for 10 years, and it was a project created by the previous Liberal government. But there’s nothing predictable (or rational) behind eliminating something like the YITS, which was, as far as I know, the only longitudinal survey of secondary and post-secondary students in Canada. The YITS information would have been incredibly valuable for policy-makers, advocacy groups and researchers of higher education in Canada — particularly at a time when accessibility issues are key, when the public is pressing to know more about the “value” of PSE, and when universities still seem ill-equipped to explain the connection between higher ed “pathways” and careers.

The fact is that numbers can be spun, but life becomes so much easier if and when there are no numbers to have to spin — in other words, “what you don’t know can’t hurt you”, or so seems to be the current modus operandi of the federal government. Perhaps this is just one more way in which the much-invoked “knowledge economy” does not include or value all knowledge.

I wouldn’t argue that the data we’d been producing were ideal. For example, as I discussed in my earlier post, the SED was fairly limited and provided too much focus on some information (such as numbers of international students, and mobility of PhD graduates) with no data available for other areas (faculty job offers; attrition rates). Still, I think these research sources were better than nothing–which is what we’ll soon have if things continue along the current lines.

When we have no knowledge — even strictly quantitative knowledge — about what is happening in education, then how do we make policy decisions that reflect anything other than a political preference? Removing the mechanisms that create new knowledge is a political act in and of itself. If “knowledge is power” then the systematic lack of attention to some kinds of knowledge is also a means of exercising power. As Jo VanEvery pointed out in her blog, the Conservative government isn’t stupid. But for me that’s the frightening part — if all this is deliberate, part of a strategy, then to what end?

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. Dr Herbert Pimlott / May 9, 2012 at 1:48 pm

    Thank you for pointing out the additional areas where information and data are being cut as part of the Conservative Party’s (CPC) approach to governing and therefore to policy (in this particular case, post-secondary education). I agree that it is disturbing and will, no doubt, lead to increasingly uninformed decisions being made, and not just by the federal government.

    I would have to also agree, however, with those that argue that it is part of the CPC’s strategy because, as with the long-form census, there is little if any information to contradict any kind of policy that government wants to implement. Ironically, an important player in the “knowledge economy” wants to do without “knowledge”?

    Although this approach to policy formation is diametrically opposite to the CPC’s focus on finding out as much information as possible about the electorate and the maintenance of the CIMS database.

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