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Institutional research in Western Europe

Updated: Mar 18, 2019

A note by Dr. James Williams

Dr James Williams is a Senior Research Fellow at Birmingham City University. He is particularly interested in the student experience of higher education, and the development and use of feedback surveys as part of the institutional quality enhancement process. 

“Institutions are awashed with data.”

In Western European higher education, much that institutions do is informed by data collection. Learning and teaching is evidence-based rather than what academics think ‘ought to be the case’; services and facilities are changed on the basis of evidence; even (at least in theory) staff and student satisfaction is taken into account during improvement processes. Institutions are awash with data, assiduously collected and used by senior managers to effect quality imp

rovement programmes. This is what we in EAIR understand by ‘institutional research’.

However, this term is not recognized as a discrete activity in quite the same way as it is in the United States, where it has developed and matured for many decades. This may be seen as mere semantics (after all, the phrase is English and mildly meaningless, so different languages translate it in different ways) but it does have significant implications not only for institutions but also for any notion of an institutional research ‘profession’ or indeed, for institutional research capacity.

Institutional Research is done by lots of different groups

In Western European institutions, unlike their counterparts in the United States where most institutions have a centralized ‘institutional research’ office, institutional research is done by lots of different groups, internal and

external, although IR functions may well be focused on a particular department with a name like ‘academic planning’. Often, it seems, managers’ awareness of expertise within their own institutions is patchy and this can lead to individuals being overlooked in favour of others, sometimes even external consultants who have little understanding of the institution. At best, this is the result of a lack of consistency and coordinated institutional thinking and lead

s, ultimately, to inefficiency and wasted data.

Concomitantly, there is no clear career progression for staff who might be seen as institutional researchers.

They are neither teachers nor administrators and as ‘researchers’ they do not fit into standard models. I have even been called, rather dismissively, a ‘consultant’ by a colleague in a traditional science faculty.

Institutional researchers develop rather than being employed with a clear longer term aim in mind.

"If institutional research is not recognized as such, how can a career progression be developed?"

There is a need for robust and standardised research methodologies amongst institutional researchers. We come from a wide range of different backgrounds and have widely differing assumptions about conducting research. Ontological and epistemological positions are not always mutually understood and the value of qualitative and quantitative approaches need to be recognized and used where appropriate. The obvious example is the growing trend in recent

years to inflict a questionnaire survey on students on almost every aspect of their life in higher education.

For such issues as modular evaluation, a questionnaire is simply not the best or even the most

ethical approach.

Something else is needed.

Above all, there is a need for consistent and coordinated research efforts to be made into all aspects of institutional life, not simply panic responses to poor results in national surveys. This can lead to institutional research being

merely responsive and spasmodic rather than helping to inform effective and innovative strategy and interventions. However, this is dependent on an acceptance of institutional research as a profession in its own right which is

the nub of the current problem.

In part, perhaps, it is a possible role for organizations such as EAIR to encourage a development of awareness and understanding of the role of institutional research and its practitioners. As Manja Klemencic argued during the 2015 EAIR Forum, ‘Work remains to be done by associations such as EAIR to affirm the practice of institutional research and sustain the professional identity and professional community of institutional researchers.’ The extent to which this is fulfilled is, of course, open to investigation.

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