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Big Data has become an ingredient for universities and other learning institutions in improving their processes, practices and investments. Academic leaders of today must have sound knowledge of data analysis. To make sense of data, universities need to establish Institutional Research offices (IR) to act as coordination points for data collection and analysis.

Institutional research is a research activity conducted in universities and other learning institutions to assemble and analyse data about students, staff, faculties, processes and other educational facilities to promote institutional efficiency. A myriad of data exists ranging from data about student admissions, student learning, faculty performance, operations, infrastructure and finance. However, most of this is either uncollected data or data underused.

University managers rely on such data to observe and predict enrollment trends, rate program and students success rates among other issues that can inform certain decision-making processes to benefit their institutions. The office of IR becomes a key component to this end.

The current Covid-19 pandemic has caused disruption in major ways forcing colleges, university leaders and academic staff to deal with major transformations in how learning is conducted, probable decline in revenue, hiring freezes, lay-offs and attempts to plan for the future.

To navigate this difficult path, universities and other institutions of higher learning need to intensify their institutional data collection and analysis. It is however unfortunate that most universities and colleges have limited formal policies and strategies for gathering institutional data and for employing qualified staff to generate the information and analysis required for competent, informed and innovative management.

Universities need 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, enrollment planning and tackling the consequences of external forces, like Covid-19. However, to do this, academic leaders and their faculties need to have a greater understanding of the value of IR as an essential tool for managing their universities.

IR capability generally focuses on the concept of data-driven decision making by linking institutional data and management with efforts around strategic planning.

Developing Capacity for IR

A recent study by the public universities in the U.S. concluded that offices of institutional research are “deluged by demands for data collection and report writing that blot out time and attention for deeper research, analysis and communication.’’

It is easy to Imagine professional development specialists who work on building skills in collecting, cleaning, storing, summarizing and communicating data specific to the work of units and departments. Effective IR capacity also requires a conceptual model in which universities collect and use university wide data, the decentralized 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 the academic leaders.

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 student experience and promote student learning outcomes.

The future role for institutional research is oversight of data and analytical tools as valuable resources that empower decision making at the tactical and operational levels. These decision makers should also include faculty, students and administrative staff as clients and co-participants in IR data gathering and analysis.

To quote a famous statement often used among Institutional researchers, “Data don’t speak for themselves, and they never talk to strangers.

I hope this article inspires conversations about the need for Institutional Research data driven decisions among institutions of higher learning.

Written by Francis Ochieng’ Omondi

Student of Masters of Science in Data Analytics, KCA University