New student demographic data heralds a more equitable, diverse and inclusive U of A

The university’s first Student EDI Census will provide a baseline for EDI goals.


In November 2021, the University of Alberta launched its first Student EDI Census to support the university in better understanding the current student landscape, identifying opportunities to improve supports for U of A students and better promoting an equitable, diverse and inclusive culture across all campuses. Since then the university has been analyzing the data and preparing it for public release.

“This data is some of the best in Canada and will give our university both the ability and the responsibility to apply an equity lens to outcomes, supports, and opportunities,” says Abner Monteiro, president of the U of A Students' Union.

One characteristic asked about on the survey was whether students were first generation. In response, more than one-third of students indicated they were the first in their family to attend university. Now that the university knows that so many of its learners are first generation students, the institution can use that information to foster a more equitable and inclusive environment for them, such as better taking this into account during orientation activities.

The purpose of the census — which asked students about their gender identities, sexual orientations, belief systems, spoken languages, relationship statuses, living arrangements, economic circumstances, and more — is to provide a measurable baseline as the university works towards the goals laid out in its Strategic Plan for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity (EDI).

“For any initiatives where we want to increase diversity, now we have a starting point,” says Deborah Williams, chair of the survey development committee and Associate Vice-President and Chief Analytics Officer, Performance Analytics and Institutional Research.

The data can also be used as a baseline for further research to support EDI, to help faculties, departments and programs better understand the student population, and to aid in thinking about recruitment and retention, curricular changes, pedagogical needs and faculty levels.

Carrie Smith, Vice-Provost (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion), and Williams — whose offices authored the report — were both pleased with the response rate for the survey. The U of A’s survey had a strong response rate at 44.7 per cent.

The university collects some demographic data through its administrative systems, such as binary gender, international status and Indigenous status, but the census offers a much more complete picture of the student body.

The student population is recorded as being 54.7 per cent female and 45.3 per cent male, according to the U of A’s administrative database. In response to the census, students self-identified as 59.1 per cent women, 38.3 per cent men, 3.0 per cent non-binary, 0.9 per cent transgender, and 0.2 per cent Two-Spirit, and 0.7 per cent self-identified as another gender identity. It should be noted that students could select multiple answers.

Now that the university knows — beyond anecdotal evidence — that many of its students identify outside the gender binary, Smith says they have an opportunity to take action. “It suggests that our systems do not always align with lived experience and offers us clear evidence for making cross-institutional, data-informed changes,” she says.

Hopefully the data will also be helpful to students.

“This census reminds students that we are not alone: that hundreds of people at our university have things in common with any one of us,” says Monteiro. 

“Education can be a deeply isolating experience, and I hope this data helps students connect with communities — or create entirely new ones.”

Amidst the demographic questions on the survey, students were also asked questions about belonging at the university. Approximately eight out of ten students (81.7 per cent) agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “I feel comfortable at the University of Alberta.”

On the other hand, only about four out of ten students (42.3 per cent) agreed with the statement, “I feel the University of Alberta values me.”

Luckily there is already a project underway at the university to address the student experience.

Consultation for the Student Experience Action Plan began in late January, with the goal of launching the plan at the start of the 2023-2024 academic year.

“This action plan is to support the University Strategic Plan. It will work to put into action any commitments or goals related to the student experience that might be outlined in the strategic plan,” says Sarah Wolgemuth, project director for the Student Experience Action Plan project.

Consultation took place with students across campus, including student advisory groups. This broad consultation also gave the team behind the action plan a chance to engage with students who were feeling undervalued.

“Because we’re committing to such deep engagement with students, I want to say, ‘Tell me more’ to students,” says Wolgemuth. “What’s contributing to those feelings of lack of belonging, and what can we do as an institution to address the systems and environment that might be contributing to those feelings?”

The next Student EDI Census will take place later in 2023.

About Chelsea

Chelsea Novak is a PR/publications assistant with VER Strategic Communications and an assistant lecturer in the department of English and Film Studies. She teaches creative writing in fiction and non-fiction, and is assisting on a research project in the Creative Writing Program. Her work has appeared in Edify, Geist and Room.