Why so many Canadian universities know so little about their own racial diversity

Census data allows one to analyse university graduation rates by visible minority and ethnic origin, and first and second generation immigrants are more educated than non-immigrants, although there are variations among groups as shown in the above chart.

However, this is not at the individual university level, where it may help identify issues and gaps:

Many Canadian universities proudly promote the diversity and inclusiveness of their communities, but a CBC News investigation has found that most can’t provide data about how their students identify racially.

As part of an investigation of race and racial discrimination at Canadian universities, CBC News discovered that most of the country’s largest institutions have an incomplete picture of the racial diversity within their student populations, with more than 60 schools saying they don’t collect the data.

Experts, human rights advocates and recently the government of Ontario have endorsed the collection of race-based data as a means of uncovering inequality and better understanding the needs of racialized groups. Racialized is a term used to describe people who identify as being part of a visible minority.


Ryerson University student Renee Vettivelu says she would have no problem indicating on a school survey how she identifies racially. (CBC News)

“Personally I wouldn’t mind sharing my background and my identity, I’m quite comfortable with it, proud of it,” said Renee Vettivelu, a second-year aerospace engineering student at Ryerson University in Toronto.

She’s Tamil-Canadian and says her parents helped to foster her appreciation for her culture through community events and Saturdays spent at Tamil school.

Ryerson is one of many schools that couldn’t provide details about how members of its student community identify, but it recently confirmed it intends to start gathering this data from students.

“I think that there’s a lot that Ryerson would be able to do if they had that knowledge,” said Vettivelu. She says counselling services for racialized students and financial support for cultural groups and events are examples of where more data would make a difference.


York University professor Enakshi Dua says universities have been reluctant to collect race-based data from students. (CBC News)

Enakshi Dua, a professor in York University’s gender, feminist and women’s studies department, agrees.

“We need to collect data to have an understanding of how accessible our universities are and where there are barriers and hurdles,” Dua said.

Dua has worked on equity issues in the university environment for more than 15 years and says universities haven’t been receptive to calls to collect information about race.

No clear picture of student diversity

Over the past five months, CBC News asked 76 universities from across the country to provide a breakdown of their student populations by race. While some gave more detail than others, most schools couldn’t provide much information about the diversity of their students.

Some universities pointed to data from third-party surveys that target specific groups like first- or senior-year undergraduates. Other schools provided information in broader categories like “visible minority,” or only offered information about specific groups such as black or Indigenous students.

In all, 63 universities said they couldn’t answer the question on racial demographics because they don’t ask students to provide information about their racial identity. In many cases, data about Indigenous students is already available to universities.

Benefits of collecting data

“If you want to really serve the population, I think you first need to know who’s in your student body,” said Renu Mandhane, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. “And not just at an eyeballing it sort of way, actually understanding in a much more discrete way.”

She says it isn’t just students who benefit from data collection, but the institutions themselves because they can track the effectiveness of their programs.

“Many of these universities have anti-racism departments or diversity offices. Well, are they able to actually track how students feel about their experience based on, you know, data?”


Renu Mandhane, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, says race-based data can help universities address racial discrimination. (CBC News)

Mandhane says the need for more race-based data goes beyond higher education into sectors like policing and child welfare, even though it’s rare for institutions to collect it.

She suspects some universities are still concerned about addressing the uncomfortable topic of race. “If I collect the data and it reveals that you know this many per cent of my students are black, what does that mean? What does that require me to do?” she said.

Concerns about collecting race data

The 63 schools that said they don’t collect race data include larger institutions like York University and the University of British Columbia, along with smaller schools like Huron University College in London, Ont., Cape Breton University and the University of Prince Edward Island.

Concordia University in Montreal was up front about why it doesn’t ask students for race information: “In Quebec, this is not an option and it is considered illegal to ask.”

Source: Why so many Canadian universities know so little about their own racial diversity – Canada – CBC News


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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