Canada·CBC Investigates

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

A CBC News investigation looks at the reasons why so many Canadian universities don't collect race-based data about their student communities even though many experts say the information could help schools better serve their students.

Experts say race-based data key to supporting students, addressing inequality

Over the past five months, CBC News asked 76 universities from across the country to provide a breakdown of their student populations by race. Most schools couldn't provide much information. (CBC)

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."

It's actually not illegal to collect race-based data in Quebec, but the province's privacy watchdog says universities should be prepared to explain why they need the information if someone files a complaint.

[Students] want institutions to collect the data, partially because for so many years experiences of racism or racial discrimination have been seen as anecdotal or, you know, a few bad apples.- Renu Mandhane, chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission

Mount Royal University in Calgary wrote, "As a general rule, Mount Royal University doesn't collect student data related to race, ethnicity or religious affiliations. The only exception is students who self-identify as Indigenous." The university said collecting information about race might be seen as an attempt to discriminate against certain racial groups. 

In a similar response, the University of Waterloo said it doesn't collect such data because the school "does not discriminate on the basis of gender, race, colour, sexual orientation, disability, national or ethnic origin, or any other grounds prohibited by law."

But not every university raised the legal or reputational consequences of asking. The University of Guelph in Ontario said it doesn't collect its own data because it relies on demographic information provided by a U.S.-based undergraduate survey called the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE).The voluntary survey targets a sample of students and Canadian universities usually take part every three years.

Chief Commissioner Mandhane says universities shouldn't worry about a backlash from racialized students.

"They want institutions to collect the data, partially because for so many years experiences of racism or racial discrimination have been seen as anecdotal or, you know, a few bad apples," she said. "And what I think communities feel is like once we see the data we're going to really understand whether this is systemic or not."

Some universities keeping track

Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax started asking black and Indigenous applicants to self-identify back in 2013.

"At the Mount we did specifically choose these two populations of students, Aboriginal students and students of African descent, because we were prepared to respond," said Paula Barry Mercer, associate vice-president, student experience.

The university has an Africentric Support Group and an Aboriginal Student Centre, each with hired co-ordinators to oversee mentorship, academic counselling and social events.

Barry Mercer says the data accomplishes two goals. First, it helps connect students to support groups on campus. Secondly, it gives the university a sense of how successfully black and Indigenous students are progressing through their studies.

Other schools that ask racialized students to self-identify include Queen's University, Dalhousie University and Acadia University.

Filling the data void

Many of the schools CBC News contacted take part in surveys like the NSSE, which asks a sample of first- and fourth-year students to provide "ethno-cultural" information by selecting options like "White," "Black" and "South Asian."

The University of Toronto said the NSSE is the "best available information" about the racial diversity within its student population. Ryerson University also offered NSSE data in its response to CBC's questions.

"That [survey] question is not at all designed to provide institutions information about their racial composition," said Jillian Kinzie, associate director of the NSSE Institute. "That is not why the question is on the survey,"

Ryerson and the University of Toronto plan to expand their data-collection efforts. (Mark Felix/The Orange County Register/Associated Press)

Kinzie says the purpose of the question is to help institutions understand how race might play a role in student engagement. She says she's surprised that many Canadian universities don't collect data on the race of their students.

The Canadian University Survey Consortium (CUSC) also focuses on the undergraduate experience and surveys a different student group (first-year, middle years, graduating) each year on a rolling schedule. The consortium was less adamant about how data from its similarly structured "ethnicity" question should be used.

"We're in the business of gathering, helping institutions gather information, and how they choose to use it and for what purposes, we leave it to them," said Tyler Hall, vice-president of CUSC.

Like Ryerson, the University of Toronto, Canada's largest University, plans to expand its data collection efforts. The school is developing a new student census that will include questions about racial identity. U of T says it will ask all registered students to provide this information and students will also have the option of changing their information.

"The data we collect will help inform policies, programs and services across the university," the school said in a statement to CBC News. "We've long been committed to ensuring diversity, equity and inclusion on our campuses, and this data collection is key to fulfilling that commitment."