Refocusing institutional research on university needs


The COVID-19 pandemic is all-absorbing, requiring university leaders and academic staff to deal with major transitions in teaching to online formats, probable declines in revenue, hiring freezes and lay-offs and attempts to plan for what lies ahead.

To navigate this difficult path, universities need to intensify their institutional data collection and analysis. Yet most universities, especially outside of the United States and a few other countries, have limited formal policies and strategies for gathering institutional data and for employing trained staff to generate the information and analysis required for competent, informed and innovative management, with or without the world-changing circumstance of a pandemic.

Internationally, the primary catalyst for increasing institutional research (IR) capacity has been largely reactive, focused on satisfying the growing demand of ministries of education for data to meet evolving accountability schemes and to participate in the global ranking game of universities.

Combined, this has led to relatively new campus efforts to generate and maintain databases and formulate strategies for boosting citation index scores and similar measures of research output, and not much else.

Universities should generate, organise and use data for their own strategic purposes. As argued in the book The New Flagship University: Changing the paradigm from global ranking to national relevancy, the best universities focus on their internal behaviours and policies with the goal of informed institutional self-improvement in every aspect of their teaching, research and public service missions.

The IR capability of a university is a key component to this end. It may also well prove a market advantage for universities dealing with the COVID-19 era.

Challenges of refocusing IR

Universities collect and analyse a myriad of data about their admissions, student learning, faculty performance, operations, infrastructure and finance. However, most of the collected data is underused. This is especially true within the centrally steered higher education systems that are the norm throughout much of the world.

There is also a long tradition of short-term university leadership, with leaders having expertise in academic affairs, but little executive management experience or a limited ability to engage in strategic planning.

In these circumstances, university leaders and staff are most in need of an organised IR effort that can inform decision-making. Yet most universities have placed a low priority on IR capacity and have taken a piecemeal approach by identifying a problem or challenge for the university and then seeking the time and effort of a faculty person to provide analysis – sometimes with limited data and expertise for such an analysis. Indeed, many universities have only recently established IR offices with centralised data hubs.

Universities need therefore to refocus their IR capacity towards institutional self-improvement and quality controls, including internal accountability efforts like the review of academic departments, the evaluation of campus initiatives, enrolment planning and tackling the consequences of external forces, like COVID-19, and away from meeting the ministerial edicts and demands of the ranking industry.

But to do this, academic leaders and their faculty need to have a greater understanding of the value of IR as an essential tool for managing their universities.

Building IR capacity

IR capability generally focuses on the concept of data-driven decision-making and includes the following co-dependent functions:

• Data development and maintenance on core university activities.
• Enrolment, personnel and financial management.
• Outcomes assessment, programme review and accreditation.
• Institutional reporting and analysis.
• Analytics and strategic planning.

These are interconnected aims, of course, that link institutional data and management with efforts around strategic planning. But how can universities effectively develop IR capacity?

As noted, most universities need professional IR staff and not to simply rely on the efforts or interest of faculty. There is a growing recognition of the need for professional staff, reflected in the growth of graduate degree and credential programmes in institutional research. (See a list of US IR graduate and certificate programmes.)

Effective IR capacity also requires a conceptual model in which universities collect and use university-wide data. The decentralised nature of many universities has posed challenges for systematically collecting useful information, with departments, schools and faculties sometimes claiming exclusive control of what data is collected and made available to a university’s central academic administration.

Universities can also seek collaborations with similar regional or national universities, and even international partners, to help build a comparative perspective and to bolster institutional research as a profession with common standards of data collection, research and analysis methods.

To build their IR capacity, institutions need to structure their data collection and analysis efforts around the teaching and learning, research and public service activities and their academic community and constituents. This includes efforts to better understand and improve the student experience and promote student learning outcomes and degree completion.

“Student-related analyses do not encompass the full range of work done by all IR offices, but it is a unifying priority that is shared across nearly all institutions,” notes the report Statement of Aspirational Practice for Institutional Research.

This report published by the Association for Institutional Research also argues that effective institutional management and improvement requires an expanded notion of decision-makers and stakeholders beyond simply the academic leadership of a university.

These decision-makers should also include faculty, students and administrative staff as clients and co-participants in IR data gathering and analysis. That can include improved data sharing and visualisation tools to empower, for example, a school of engineering to comparatively explore the quality of its teaching practices or its learning outcome goals for graduate students.

COVID-19 and the future of IR

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis and transition to a new normal, systematic gathering of data and analysis has never been more vital for strategic planning and navigating a new and unpredictable environment. Institutional research offices can provide, as one observer of US universities has noted, “the connective tissue to help their institutions make sense of the current situation”.

Eventually, the new normal will emerge. Leading national universities will remain important for socio-economic mobility, for producing economic and civic leaders, for knowledge production and for pushing innovation and societal self-reflection.

They will continue to expand their activities in reaction to societal demands, generating new avenues of research and discovery and expanding their reach into most aspects of modern life. And they will have an expanding number of societal stakeholders who demand coherent and data-driven forms of accountability.

We have entered a world of ‘big data’, and it is essential that universities leverage and use data to improve institutional activities, practices and investment, and do so responsibly. And in this effort, university leaders need to understand that data and analysis should be widely shared and used.

At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic has and will cause significant economic hardship for universities, and the students and societies they serve. In the midst of this world-altering event, it is important that university presidents, rectors and provosts understand the value of investing in their university’s IR capacity.

But it is also true that the financial crisis faced by most, if not all, universities, will make this difficult, and IR capacity, or lack thereof, may disadvantage many universities.

In an early moment of self-realisation, an ancient Greek aphorism stated “know thyself”. Aeschylus, Socrates and Plato all integrated this concept into their teachings. While the focus can be on the individual, it can also apply to institutions, and more exactly those who make it a collective whole. Yet many universities have not leveraged the deep knowledge, expertise and institutional memory within the academy to do just this for the improvement of their own institutions.

To know thyself can be, at times, uncomfortable – exposing not only institutional strengths, but weaknesses as well. But only through an analytical lens can universities strengthen an academic culture that is always seeking improvement and strategically dealing with its challenges, financial or otherwise.

John Aubrey Douglass is senior research fellow in public policy and higher education at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, United States. Igor Chirikov is the director of the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium and senior researcher at the Center for Studies in Higher Education at UC Berkeley. This article is the second in a series for University World News focused on the theme ‘Missing Links’ in policies and practices of universities and is based on observations offered in the book, The New Flagship University: Changing the paradigm from global ranking to national relevancy (Palgrave Macmillan 2016). The first University World News article focused on the disconnect of the mission of universities with their hiring and promotion of faculty.

Publication date: 
May 18, 2020
Publication type: 
Journal Articles