Posted on September 5, 2006

Schools Take Colour Count

Louise Brown, Toronto Star, September 2, 2006

Just how white is Ontario’s ivory tower?

For the first time, there may be an answer.

In what could be the first colour-coded snapshot of a freshman class in Canada, a Queen’s University survey suggests one in four students at the academically elite school belongs to a visible minority — roughly twice the national average, but half the ethnic mix at the University of Toronto.

The voluntary email survey even breaks students into groups such as black, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Southeast Asian, West Asian, Latin American, First Nation, Metis, Inuit, “mixed origin” and those with disabilities.

It seems race is no longer a four-letter word in the world of learning.

This new breed of “equity census” is part of a push among educators from kindergarten to grad school to understand their increasingly diverse array of students, and make sure the halls of learning are open to all.

Queen’s plans to use the data to help figure out why many complain of a “culture of whiteness” on its stately campus, and what it can do to recruit more of Canada’s racial rainbow.

“Our Canadian culture has been squeamish about gathering race-based statistics because no one wants to see ethnic makeup reduced to numbers on a page,” says Queen’s vice-principal Patrick Deane, who called the poll results “respectable in a national context.” Overall, though, he’d like to see more of a racial mix.

“But unless you get this kind of information, you don’t really know if you have a problem.”

For Queen’s, this data is a springboard for action, says Deane. He cites a range of possible next steps that officials will discuss this fall, from setting loose goals for recruiting more visible-minority professors and students, to targeting scholarships and grants at students of colour and setting up a visible minorities resource centre.

Queen’s is not alone in tracking its racial makeup.

The University of Toronto has taken a socio-economic sample of 3,000 to 4,000 students annually for the past seven years to make sure rising tuition fees have not squeezed out visible minorities or low-income students, says vice-provost Dave Farrar.

The numbers have been reassuring, with the percentage of U of T students who identify themselves as a visible minority steady at about 51 per cent, which Farrar says “reflects the population of the Greater Toronto Area, where about 75 per cent of our students come from.”

And it’s not just in higher learning that talk of race is no longer taboo.

From the Toronto District School Board’s upcoming student “census” — which will ask all 270,000 students more than 50 questions on everything from race and family income to how they feel about school and neighbourhood — to the growing number of Northern Ontario boards now asking native students for permission to track their achievement (two boards last year, five more this fall), schools are becoming comfortable talking about race.

In some cases, they have had no choice. “We’ve pushed for these statistics to be collected precisely because of concerns there are many students the system is not serving well,” says Zanana Akande, former president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations and an ex-principal.

She notes it was the Ontario Human Rights Commission that nudged the Toronto public board last year to start tracking the racial backgrounds of students it suspends and expels under Ontario’s tough Safe Schools Act. Black students had complained they were more frequently kicked out.

“The school board was dragged kicking and screaming to the table on this issue,” says Akande, “but because our population is so diverse, to not collect this data would be irresponsible.”

But what will educators do with it?

“We’re not trying to embarrass anyone; we just need to get a better handle on who our students are and how they perceive school if we’re going to level the playing field and give them all a good chance at success,” says Lloyd McKell, the Toronto public board’s executive officer of student and community equity.

“We view race not as a biological concept — we’re not using the old breakdown of black, white, red and yellow — but as the student’s social and cultural reality, so we know who they are and what turns them on and off in terms of their success.”

The Toronto survey will distinguish, for example, not just between black and white, but between black African, black Caribbean or black Canadian. McKell says it may help schools know where they should offer more homework help for students, more outreach to parents or more training for staff.

The Ontario Human Rights Commission allows organizations to ask people their racial background only if it is part of a move to ensure they are not being discriminated against. Likewise, organizations can set up “special programs” to recruit certain groups protected from discrimination under the Ontario Human Rights Code.

For Queen’s, a largely residential university set in a relatively white part of Ontario, the challenge may be how to attract racially diverse students from the Greater Toronto Area, where they are surrounded by family and cultural services.

Its survey shows that visible minorities make up about one-third of students who apply to Queen’s, and also one-third of those who land an offer. But only one-quarter of them actually enrol, raising the question why do the rest choose not to come?

“One thing we may choose to do is to target (minority) parents about the supports we offer students on campus, and also the faith communities that exist in Kingston,” says registrar Jo-Anne Brady.

It may also consider more online “distance learning”, mused vice-principal Deane, for students who would prefer a Queen’s program but don’t wish to leave Toronto. In the United States, schools have long tracked the achievement of Hispanic, black, Asian and even Hawaiian students, and racial quotas for college admissions have bounced in and out of favour.

But in Canada, racial tracking has been rare, despite worries over high dropout rates among black, aboriginal and Portuguese-speaking students. The old Toronto city school board gathered data by race for years, but stopped in the late 1990s when then-premier Mike Harris pulled the plug on equity programs and research.

However, a growing push to raise test scores and reduce dropouts, plus a government focus on “accountability,” has made it fashionable to talk in terms of “measuring learning gaps” and “identifying risk factors” — things that cry out for demographic detective work.

On a global scale, race-based data have come of age — they were embraced at the World Conference on Racism in 2001 in South Africa as a way to ensure all children get equal opportunities to learn, notes Sandra Carnegie-Douglas, president of the Jamaican-Canadian Association.

“Some parents do worry about how race-based data are used and we have to be vigilant that they aren’t used in a negative way, but gathering these statistics is a way to understand who is being excluded from our school system, who is being left behind.”

Even Ontario parents are becoming comfortable speaking in colour. Spanish-speaking parents in Toronto have called an emergency summit this month to try to figure out why their children drop out more often than others.

Some black parents are welcoming the development of new “Afri-centric” lessons in social studies that will be tried out this year at a junior high school in the Jane-Finch neighbourhood.

“Anything to do with race has always been controversial,” says Tam Goossen, a former trustee for the old Toronto school board and past president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations.

“You try not to stigmatize any group, but if you want any improvement in making sure no children are left behind, you have to come to some understanding of where the problem lies.”

When Toronto’s Justin Chan was shopping the world for med school, he got his worst case of sticker shock in the United States, where the training of future doctors can cost $40,000 (U.S.) a year.

Today, as a second-year medical student at the University of Toronto, Chan pays less than half as much — $17,327 (Canadian) including extras — a fee that has risen 2 per cent this year after a two-year tuition freeze was lifted in Ontario.

But Chan says this is as high as tuition should go, in a field where practitioners should be as diverse as their patients.

“The worry is, if you don’t keep tuition low, you won’t attract students who reflect the diverse population, and you won’t produce doctors who can serve all their various needs,” said Chan, 26, president of the University of Toronto’s Medical Society, which represents 800 students.

A Statistics Canada study released yesterday shows tuition fees have surged 3.2 per cent this year across Canada and 4.6 per cent in Ontario with the highest jumps in graduate and professional schools such as dentistry, medicine and law.

The national rise, which is twice as steep as the year before, has been fuelled in large part by Ontario, where the provincial government lifted a two-year freeze in May and has allowed colleges and universities to raise tuition this fall by an average of 5 per cent per school, and up to 8 per cent for professional programs.

“Frankly, this is too much money for many students, and it makes Ontario the third most expensive place in the country to attend post-secondary education, up from fourth place last year,” warned Jesse Greener, president of the Canadian Federation of Students in Ontario.

The most expensive province is Nova Scotia, where the average undergraduate pays $6,571, followed by New Brunswick at $5,328 and Ontario at $5,160.

And although Ontario has pumped more money into student loans and launched new grants for low-income students, Greener says this “gives students more access to debt.”

Greener says an 8 per cent fee hike to $17,280 for first-year law students at University of Toronto — the maximum permitted by Queen’s Park — is “absurd, especially when a student studying (law) at McGill University will pay under $4,000.”

Greener slammed Premier Dalton McGuinty for letting schools charge students more instead of giving schools extra funding from his government’s $300 million surplus. Greener warned students are planning campus protests this fall and will make fee hikes a provincial election issue in 2007.

A separate study on tuition released yesterday by the non-profit Education Policy Institute suggests tuition has not climbed as much as it looks in real dollar terms, when adjusted for inflation and considered alongside education tax credits and student grants.

But it warns governments must be more careful to get financial aid to the neediest students.

Chan agrees that student debt must not be allowed to become so heavy that graduates can’t afford to go into less lucrative public service jobs.

“If you have a passion to help people, including the very needy, you can’t do that if you graduate with a six-figure debt, like a lot of Americans,” said Chan, whose student debt has hit five figures in just one year.

“You don’t want to choose a line of work just to avoid going bankrupt paying back your student loan.”