A new self-assessment tool for universities
This article was originally published in Al-Fanar Media.
The recent release of the 2016 Academic Ranking of World Universities—the Shanghai List—has once again brought up the thorny topic of university rankings. But while the debate on ranking and benchmarking rages on, one obvious tool that universities in MENA region rarely use is self-assessment. While critical self-examination can be an uncomfortable step to take, an institution willing to take a careful look at itself can get a useful understanding of where university reforms are needed to improve quality. Being equipped to conduct assessment is critical to the survival and success of universities for a number of reasons:
- Universities can chart their own direction if they are proactive rather than reactive. The increased attention on the many university rankings often leaves universities in developing countries at a disadvantage when compared to those in developed nations, partly because they do not have robust data for comparison, and partly because they often struggle to compete in core areas. Self-assessment allows universities to benchmark their performance against good practice, enabling them to identify and strategically build strengths while pinpointing gaps in core services that must be improved.
- Structured self-assessments unlock resources and expertise to promote institution-wide change. Universities often have faculty members with personal experience of scholarship programs, exchanges and professional development programs, such as the Fulbright Scholarships, Commonwealth Scholarships, or University Administrator Support Program. These programs equip alumni with an understanding of international best practice and techniques, strategies and resources to promote reform in their home institutions. However, without a strategic framework in which to apply their expertise, these individuals often go unrecognized and unsupported, preventing change from moving beyond their own department. In contrast, when universities conduct broad comprehensive self-assessments, reforms or skills found in one area can be expanded to maximize benefit to the whole institution, and they can tap the expertise of individuals who have had international exposure.
- Those higher-education institutions that can articulate their needs have a better chance of getting them filled. Donor organizations such as the World Bank, nonprofit foundations, and aid groups have increased commitment and funding to universities, as they have recognized the crucial role that higher education plays in promoting civil society, stability, and economic development. However, a lack of substantive assessment and data often leads donors to shape reform initiatives based primarily on external assessments of institutions and higher education priorities. Self-assessment can give these universities the opportunity to express their own needs and provide key data to assist donor organizations in developing more locally driven solutions.
Increasing attention is being paid to the value of assessing and benchmarking the performance of institutions in developing country contexts. The World Bank has developed a University Governance Scoring Card to benchmark universities in the MENA region and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development is renewing attempts to benchmark higher education systems. However, many of these large international tools address only limited issues and are designed to provide external comparison rather than provide a complete framework for self-reflection and institutional improvement.
One key challenge for many universities is how and where to begin this process of self-assessment. Higher education institutions in the developing world would benefit from a holistic tool that is tailored to the developing-country context and positioned as a guide for reflection based on solid data. When combined with guidance and coaching on addressing areas of weakness, this becomes a powerful tool for institutional improvement.
Through our higher education development programs at IREX, we have developed a Higher Education Institutional Capacity Assessment Tool (HEICAT) that provides universities with a comprehensive way to gauge their performance across a range of management and academic functions. The HEICAT is an adaptable tool designed to provide a useful baseline to assess performance and prioritize “next steps”; to support data-informed decision making as a basis for instituting change; and to compare performance across time to measure progress in achieving goals and objectives. Its core functions support universities in their self-review, and include:
- A facilitator guide providing the institutional review team with a detailed step-by-step guide to using the toolkit.
- A qualitative data-collection tool or comprehensive questionnaire divided into categories based on university functions.
- A scoring matrix that provides a framework for quantifying performance across core categories. Within each category, it identifies a series of “good practice criteria” based on international practice. Using evidence from interviews, observation and document review, the team scores the institution based on the extent to which each criterion is met.
- A report template designed to maximize the value of the feedback provided to senior university administration by providing the structure and format to professionally present the data collected and analyzed using the tool.
Later this year, IREX will start a webinar series for universities to use this tool to guide self-reflection and identify priorities for improvement. The HEICAT will be available free to universities in developing countries.
This is one step forward, but more can be done to expand the tools available to institutions that want to improve. And with many organizations now working in this area, there is much to gain in working together to test and develop this type of product. The mutual goal is that, through self-assessment, universities in developing contexts will be better able to position themselves to meet rising demands and improve the quality of higher education in their communities, regardless their position in rankings.
Lori Mason and Rebecca Ward serve as senior technical advisors in Higher Education for IREX. For more information on the HEICAT, please contact IREX at HEDS@irex.org.