• September 17th, 2019
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The role of institution research in higher education


The success of higher education institutions depends on many factors. One of the crucial factors is what is known as institutional research, popularly referred to as IR. I shall use the full term, institutional research, in this article for the sake of readers’ convenience.

 To unpack what institutional research means I am indebted to three scholars who define and explain the term in simple language. According to Suslow “The institutional researcher serves higher education and, in turn, his institution through critical appraisal and careful investigation of its processes and programmes.” Suslow tells us how an institutional researcher serves his/her higher education institution by scrutinising the institution’s programmes and systems. All this for the improvement of the institution’s operations.

 For Saupe institutional research is “…research conducted within an institution of higher education to provide information which supports institutional planning, policy formation and decision making.”  In the preceding definition, planning, policy making and decision making are important and these need to be informed by research carried out in the institution. This shows that thorough research must be done within the institution before decisions are made and before policies are crafted and implemented. Since these decisions and policies affect the lives of students, stakeholders, academic, and non-academic staff, due care must be taken before implementing them. 

 In the same vein, Borden and Kezar state that “the primary purpose of institutional research is to facilitate organizational learning.” In other words, institutional research assists in the teaching and learning of students in higher education institutions. From the three scholars, we learn that institutional research has nothing to do with the academic research that academics have to conduct in their areas of specialisations in order to extend the boundaries of knowledge. Institutional research simply refers to the research conducted within an institution or a university. The results of institutional research assists the university or institution in many ways. The results also assists university leaders and management to make informed decisions on a number of issues. The results from institutional research guide policy making regarding the operations of an institution. 

To illustrate the importance of institutional research for a university, I will consider retention rate and graduation rate of students. What is meant by student retention rate and how is this knowledge important for any institution? Student retention rate refers to the number of students who enrol for a degree programme and stay up to the end of the programme. Some students drop out of a degree programme for various reasons. When a degree programme has a high dropout rate, it means that it has a low retention rate. A low dropout rate means that the degree programme has a high retention rate. Therefore, retention rate means the percentage of students who will continue enrolling from year to year in a degree programme or in a university.

 Local universities and universities across the world are faced with low retention and low graduation rates. It is through institutional research that such information about retention and graduation rates is obtained. Institutional research provides the reasons why, for example, the retention and graduation rates are low in certain degree programmes or in the university as a whole.  The information from institutional research will, for instance, indicate whether lecturers, course materials, insufficient books in the library, inadequate infrastructure, lack of accommodation, social life, peer pressure or lack of funds, are some of the reasons why students drop out of a degree programme. 

The information may also indicate that it is students’ lack of preparedness for university education that leads to high dropout rates and low graduation rates. Also, family responsibilities may cause students to drop out of a degree programme for a period of time or completely. In other words, information gathered through institutional research will indicate student factors, lecturer factors and university factors that affect student retention and graduation rate.

 Armed with this information, the institutions plan how to address some these problems in order to improve retention and graduation rates. Leaders of institutions rely on data provided by institutional research in order to make informed decisions and polices that assist in increasing retention and graduation rates of students. The reputation and academic prestige of institutions are negatively or positively affected by the retention and graduation rates at the institutions. This is because retention and successful completion of degree programmes matter a lot to students, parents, guardians and other stakeholders. 

Considering the critical role that institutional research plays in institutions, many higher education institutions have established full-fledged Institutional Research Departments or Units. The departments or units engage in research within the institutions to provide data and other information that are used to make decisions on a number of issues. Policy making is guided by information from institutional research, and not just by the whims of individuals. In this article I have given just one issue of retention and graduation rates, but there are many other areas which benefit from information from institutional research. 

Institutional research has become so important in higher education that regional associations have been established. One which is most influential is the Association of Institutional Research (AIR). There is also the Southern Africa Institutional Research (SAIR). 

It is important that local institutions become members of the regional association in order to benefit from the conferences or forums that the association organises.

*Professor Jairos Kangira is the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Namibia. He writes on his own accord. Email address: kjairos@gmail.com


Staff Reporter
2019-06-21 10:15:37 2 months ago

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