Benchmarking Universities and not Ranking them: the PASET Initiative

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Benchmarking of Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (ASET) Education in Africa under the Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (PASET) Initiative

Tertiary education systems play a critical role in supporting knowledge-driven economic growth strategies and the construction of democratic, socially cohesive societies (World Bank, 2002). Research universities make a significant contribution in that context through the training of professionals, high-level specialists, scientists, and researchers needed for sustained economic growth and improved living standards and for generating new knowledge in support of the national innovation systems.

To date, approaches to measure and analyze what works at the tertiary education level have relied principally on rankings that attempt to capture, with a single number indicating the relative standing of universities, the multiple dimensions of their performance. Global rankings such as the Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU), Times Higher Education (THE), and QS World University Rankings have gained traction as a popular way of measuring the performance of individual universities. However, as many researchers have observed, these rankings are imperfect from a methodological viewpoint and may induce inappropriate behaviors among universities keen on improving their global reputational position as signaled by the rankings (Salmi and Alenoush, 2007; Hazelkorn, 2011).

By contrast, benchmarking appears to be a more adequate instrument to help universities assess and understand their performance, as it allows meaningful comparisons among universities in a given country and among similar institutions across countries at the same stage of development (Salmi, 2013). Benchmarking enables participating universities to choose the comparators and learn from good practices anywhere in the world. Unlike rankings, which lead to a ‘race to the top’, benchmarking provides a tempered learning. Its main purpose is to improve performance diagnosis (identification of areas for improvement) and orient the design of specific corrective interventions to enable tertiary education systems and institutions to reach their performance potential.

To continue improving the quality and relevance of learning, research and technology transfer in ASET institutions in the SSA Region, there is a need to further strengthen data- driven policy making through improved data collection and analysis at the system-wide and institutional levels.

A benchmarking pilot study of seven ASET focused universities from across the continent was undertaken in 2014. The results from this study were presented at the PASET Regional Forum in June 2014, in Dakar, Senegal. Participants, drawn from African universities, governments, regional organizations and think tanks, responded very positively to the work and expressed interest in scaling up the pilot study.

It is based on this high level of interest that PASET and the AAU are partnering to launch a benchmarking exercise which would be extended to a larger number of universities and a larger set of benchmarking indicators. Both the Tanzanian and Ethiopian governments have asked that their public universities be included in the exercise. A set of key target universities for this exercise include the Africa Centers of Excellence (ACE) universities. As we work together towards the emergence of oases of excellence with the ACE project, it is imperative that the quality of the ecosystem (both institutional and national system levels) in which these oases exist are continually assessed and improved. Two main goals of the benchmarking exercise are to:

  1. Train African institutions in effectively using benchmarking as a tool to assess and improve their performance; and
  2. Partner with interested universities, regional/sub-regional organizations as well as with national tertiary education agencies, and support them to build capacity to guide and support benchmarking in institutions under their purview on a regular basis

The main benefit for participating universities will be to have access to detailed data from other ASET universities, which will allow them to compare their results with the performance of these other universities, understand the main factors explaining differences in performance, and follow the evolution of performance and its determinants over time. On that basis, they will be able to identify their strengths and areas for improvement, and take action to work on these areas.

Key to the success and sustainability of this Benchmarking Initiative is to obtain the support and commitment of relevant institutions, agencies and organizations in SSA through meaningful partnerships. Developing such partnerships will involve encouraging participation of these organizations in the activities of the Initiative. Such engagement will facilitate appropriate knowledge transfer from the Benchmarking team to the relevant African organizations.

The Benchmarking Initiative Launch is slated for 9-10 November 2015 at the La Palm Royal Beach Hotel, Accra, Ghana. The two main objectives of this Launch Meeting are to:

  1. Discuss the methodology and scope of the upcoming benchmarking exercise
  2. Plan for benchmarking capacity building in the region.

Participants will be drawn from universities, interested regional/sub-regional organizations as well as national tertiary education agencies from within the region. The invited organizations and agencies will include AAU, IUCEA, CAMES, SARUA, ECOWAS, UEMOA, EAC, SADC, ACU, AUC, AUF and national agencies responsible for tertiary education in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda, Senegal and Nigeria.

Submitted by Professor Jonathan C. Mba, Director, Research & Academic Planning, AAU Secretariat

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