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Two new projects aim to fill gap in PSE data

Recent studies point to an urgent need for harmonized data on the Canadian postsecondary sector

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | FEB 11 2008

Raymond Théberge readily acknowledges the existence of a “data gap” in postsecondary education and says “we have to do something about it.”

Dr. Théberge is director general of the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada, or CMEC, and his organization is working with Statistics Canada to develop a strategy for better collection and reporting of data, not just for PSE but the entire education sector.

Universities also have embarked on an initiative to create a common set of data and reporting criteria so that information on such things as student enrolment, faculty numbers, class sizes and graduation rates are available in a uniform manner across the country.

The PSE data gap is not new, but it gained prominence last fall when the annual Education at a Glance report was published by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. The report looked at 96 indicators related to PSE; for 57 of them, Canada was unable to provide data. Without that data, argues Paul Cappon, president of the Canadian Council on Learning, Canada can’t do a proper evaluation of its performance in PSE relative to other OECD countries and “risks falling behind.”

François Nault, director of the Centre for Education Statistics at Statistics Canada, says the missing data is partly due to a new student information system the agency introduced several years ago. Amassing all the data and converting it to the new system took much longer than anticipated, he says.

Also, until now, StatsCan has been reluctant to provide estimates when some of the data was missing, but “we will ease up” on that policy, says Mr. Nault.

The need for better data was underscored by two recent provincial reports on the postsecondary sector. British Columbia’s Campus 2020 report, released in April 2007, called for discussions with other governments “with a view to obtaining agreement on the collection and reporting of nationally and internationally comparable standards and metrics for data collection and reporting.” Advantage New Brunswick, released last September, noted that “the lifeblood of good policy is good information. Good information, in turn, requires accurate data.”

The Canadian Education Statistics Council, a joint initiative of StatsCan and CMEC, held a symposium last October to “start the process” of developing a data strategy, says CMEC’s Dr. Théberge. The meeting brought together federal and provincial government officials as well as university and college representatives.

“What has to happen, as we develop a strategy, is to define what it is we need … then how do we report on it in a timely fashion,” says Dr. Théberge. “The issue is not necessarily that we don’t have the data. It’s a question of harmonization.”

The provincial ministers of education were scheduled to meet in February, and Dr. Théberge says an announcement should follow sometime after that on how they plan to proceed.

Universities, meanwhile, are also looking at data harmonization through an initiative called Common University Data Canada, or CUDC. It builds on a similar project, Common University Data Ontario, launched in the fall of 2006, says Vivek Goel, vice-president and provost at the University of Toronto. The online Ontario resource allows users to access and compare data about the province’s universities in a common format. Quebec and British Columbia have started work on similar initiatives.

Dr. Goel and Alan Harrison, vice-president, academic, at the University of Calgary, co-chair the steering group set up to shepherd the Canada-wide data plan. The group met at the end of November and aims to have a national template for data reporting ready by this spring. The goal is to have all Canada’s universities posting a common set of data by this fall, says Dr. Goel

The steering group plans to give input on other national PSE data initiatives, too. “It’s certainly my view that it’s up to the universities to take leadership on this,” says Dr. Goel. “If we define the measures, if we define the reporting, and get it up there, then we will improve the quality of what others do.”

Some education experts have concerns about the way harmonized PSE data might be used – for example, in university rankings, or as performance indicators on which governments base funding decisions. “We may or may not like what others do with the data,” says Dr. Goel, “but they’re going to do it regardless.”

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