x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Rush to collect university data

New statistics centre will help students to make an informed choice.

ABU DHABI // As the new centre for higher education data and statistics gears up to release its first snapshot of the country's universities in August, academics around the country are rushing to collect the information it needs.

The centre was announced last year by the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Sheikh Nahyan Bin Mubarak.

Its aim is to help policy-makers, and to help students and parents to make a more informed choice about where they study. It will release information such as class sizes and drop-out rates.

The centre is headed by Prof David Woodhouse, who has spent many years setting up university quality assurance systems in countries such as Australia. It is in the process of gathering data from the 70 ministry-accredited universities and more than 30 others in free zones.

Until now, there has been no formal central data collection, making it all but impossible to compare institutions on even the most basic metrics such as drop-out rates, graduation rates and entry scores.

Prof Woodhouse hopes by August to have data from about 80 of the country's 107 universities on 62 measures including academic programmes, student-teacher ratios, budgets, research output and student demographics.

Cindy Dutschke, director of institutional effectiveness at the American University of Sharjah (AUS) said that while her university already collected extensive data for its own purposes, others would have their work cut out. "It's a long process," she said.

There is a question of accuracy, too. The centre plans to audit about 5 per cent of universities each year to make sure the data provided by them is correct - but Dr Dutschke fears it could still be open to manipulation.

"It's possible to game the system," she said. "Like any reporting, you're relying on the integrity of the people reporting that data. You can audit but that will be difficult with that number of institutions."

However, she believed it would be useful for universities to be able to compare themselves with each other.

In Dubai, things are a little more complicated. Its free zones host more than 30 universities, which are regulated as private businesses by the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA). Although not obliged to share data with the ministry, some have already said they will.

Prof Raed Awamleh, campus director at Middlesex University Dubai, welcomed the project but was concerned about extra red tape.

"The KHDA already collects a huge amount of data on our students, staff, research, quality assurance systems, and so on," he said. The university has been told that the KHDA will share its database with the ministry, which should, he said, reduce duplication.

However, he cautioned against over-reliance on numerical measures in policy-making. In the long term, what was needed was research-led discussions.

"Data collection does not address issues, people do," he said. He called for "an open-field competition … based on quality as judged by students, parents and employers."

Prof Woodhouse hopes in time to see more co-operation between organisations such as the Commission for Academic Accreditation - which is staffing the data collection project - and the KHDA.

"Even though what the KHDA does is different, it is valid in the context in which it is working," he said. "It's not as stringent but it ensures quality