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Presentation 4K4. Intriguing Facets of Institutional Research

Pieter Vermeulen (South Africa)


Presentation Abstract

The higher education landscape, all over the world, is in constant flux. A changing external and internal environment is not a new phenomenon in higher education but is an inherent characteristic of the higher education system over centuries.

The Association for Institutional Research (AIR) was established in the United States of America in 1959. The relevant burning issues confronting higher education institutions in the USA at that point in time, and which gave rise to the need for the establishment of such a forum, fell under the following main categories which were included in the very first AIR-Forum.

- Enrollment management and student affairs.
- Institutional effectiveness, student learning and outcomes assessment.
- Academic programmes and faculty issues.
- Resource management and quality improvement.
- Policy analysis, planning and governance.
- Theory, practice and ethics of institutional research.
- Technology and tools for institutional research.

Forty years later the agenda for the 42nd Annual AIR Forum still contains the same seven main categories. An analysis of the presentations in the different categories, however, shows that while similar issues as those in the early nineteen sixties are addressed, the strategies and solutions to the problems differ substantially from those of the past, mainly due to the advancement of technology.


An exact definition of institutional research is just as difficult to come by as a definition for the present-day notions of distance and contact education. Terenzini's [1] definition is perhaps the most comprehensive description of what institutional research encompasses:

In this paper an attempt will be made to show the intriguing and interdependent attributes of different institutional research issues at an institution.


Issues concerning technical/analytical intelligence are multifaceted. Student enrollment management, for example, can be a complex and highly technical modeling exercise, especially when the school delivery system is unstable and unpredictable. Forecasting student enrollment in an environment where different admission requirements apply at institutions that offer a large variety of qualifications in diverse faculties is, to say the least, a very challenging exercise.

It will be illustrated how mathematical modeling can assist decision making by evaluating different scenarios that depict external and internal environmental influencing factors. In the same exercise dropout and graduation rates will be analysed, which will depict the current state of efficiency of an institution.

Closely connected to technical/analytical intelligence is the intelligence associated with specific issues, e.g., pricing and resource allocation. The presentation will include a broad approach to the issue of academic staff allocation and its link to financial viability of academic offerings in a department or faculty.

Contextual intelligence encompasses the understanding of the culture of both higher education in general (nationally), and of a specific institution. The historical and philosophical evolution of a country with regard to its socio-economic and political systems, plays a crucial role in the development of the higher education policy of the country and, therefore, implicitly and unequivocally on individual institutions of higher education. The customs, governance and decision-making processes in an institution have to adapt, sometimes very rapidly, to such changes. The impact of these contextual issues on an institution will also be highlighted in the paper.


The presentation will attempt to illustrate the multifaceted and interlinking issues that confront institutional researchers and planners everywhere in the world within a rapidly changing environment. Any mathematician/statistician would like to think that all of the above issues could only be addressed (successfully) if they were firmly based on and endorsed by symbols and numbers.

[1] Terenzini, Patrick, T, On the Nature of Institutional Research and the Knowledge and Skills it Requires, Research in Higher Education, Volume 34, Number 1, February, 1993.


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