Finding community: Should UBC be collecting racial data?

Combining UBC and UBC Okanagan’s student populations, there are almost 65,000 students who claim UBC as their school. Three Canadian prime ministers have graced the halls as well as eight Nobel Prize-winners, and UBC varsity athletes have won a combined 65 Olympic medals.

UBC makes this kind of data readily available, but for students of colour an important question remains without a statistical reply: What’s the demographic makeup of racialized students on campus?

'Irrelevant’ in admissions

Historically, racial minorities have been underrepresented at UBC. According to a 1930 UBC student census, three per cent of 1,904 students were of colour.

UBC has a comprehensive application that asks applicants to respond to short answer prompts and to describe their extracurricular activities. However, UBC doesn’t ask much more on personal data than the applicant’s name, birthdate, gender and citizenship status.

In a statement to The Ubyssey, Director of Undergraduate Admissions Andrew Arida said that “student race and ethnicity data is not collected during the application and admissions process because the information is irrelevant in determining who is admitted to the university.”

Why racial data should be collected

Gavin Gordon, co-president of UBC’s Black Student Union (BSU), said that while student race and ethnicity data may not matter to the admissions department, it matters to some students themselves.

“As people of colour, we want to know that there is a community,” he said. “... A big part of the appeal of UBC is the diversity.”

According to Gordon, the BSU seeks to create connections and bring together a Black community at UBC that is “fragmented” but “growing.” The BSU and other clubs for racialized students are places where people can express experiences that others are unable to relate to.

“[Race data] could help us better position ourselves to be comfortable,” he said. “If we ever need ... support that the general public or UBC as a whole can’t provide, [we] know those communities are there for us.”

Racial data at other Canadian universities

A 2017 CBC investigation found that more than 60 Canadian post-secondary schools don’t fully understand student racial diversity because they don’t collect data on how students identify racially, including UBC.

In Ontario, Ryerson University began asking its undergraduate and graduate students to fill out the Student Diversity Self-ID census asking about racial identity in November 2018. It emphasized that there would be a “prefer not to answer” option for each question so that the census would remain voluntary.

According to the survey’s FAQ, any data, including self-reported data, could help outline diversity issues and “[Ryerson needs] the full picture to enhance the learning experience for all students. If we don’t know what the problems are, we can’t fix them.”

According to the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s Race Policies and Guidelines, many Canadian organizations are under the mistaken impression that collecting race data is “antithetical” to human rights concerns. The document says collecting that data is “necessary for effectively monitoring discrimination, identifying and removing systemic barriers, ameliorating historical disadvantage and promoting substantive equality.”

Looking ahead

Back at UBC, racial discrimination still remains problematic.

Thirty-eight per cent of students who completed the 2018 AMS Academic Experience Survey reported experiencing racial discrimination at some point in the 2017/18 school year, and UBC’s Equity and Inclusion Office received 59 complaints of racial discrimination or harassment compared to 24 in the previous year as reported by The Ubyssey in 2018.

UBC and the AMS have planned to tackle racial discrimination with an anticipated update to Policy 3 which covers how racial discrimination and harassment can be addressed by the university.

Despite increasing attention on the issue and moves by other Canadian schools to gather that data, there remains no plan to collect the demographic data on the racial identity of students like those in the BSU.

“I feel like that data is very important to feeling like you belong here,” said Gordon. “And by keeping that data from us, I feel like they’re kind of trying to hide something, whether they are or are not.”