Despite rapid growth in the number of Arab higher-education institutions, these institutions continue to have little relative impact on national development. What has often been missing is quality control based on monitoring of performance and institutional data.
Karma El Hassan, the director of the Office of Institutional Research and Assessment (OIRA) at the American University of Beirut, has spent much of her career trying to change that.
El Hassan, who left early studies in chemistry to move on to studying educational psychology, has worked for more than 25 years as a lecturer and researcher to develop teaching programs, quality assurance and institutional research within her university and the region. “I am a model of a person who likes to communicate with people more than working in the labs,” she says. She was also one of a small group of people who founded a Middle East and North Africa chapter of the Association of Institutional Research.
For those who might not be familiar with it, could you please explain briefly what institutional research is?
The purpose of institutional research is to provide objective, systematic and thorough research that supports the institution’s goals, planning, policy formation and decision-making. Broadly, “institutional research” is viewed as a range of activities involving the collection, analysis and interpretation of information descriptive of the university and its activities. The resulting educational and organizational studies, reports and summaries facilitate evidence-based decision making and the assessment of institutional effectiveness.
Institutional research measures the effectiveness of programs and policies by adopting both international and locally developed tools. These tools help us benchmark against international standards, selected peers, and our past performance.
How can institutional research help make Arab higher education better?
Definitely, you can’t really have high quality higher education without having something like institutional research. The role of institutional research is to provide administrators with the data they need to make more informed decisions. This critical area is necessary to keep an institution on track with its purpose and mission statement. [Institutional research] helps institutions engage in a self-study process so they are better able to identify their strengths and weaknesses. It is called different things in different countries like quality assurance or accreditation. But in the end, these efforts of institutional research are a cornerstone of improving and developing higher education.
From your perspective as head of institutional research at the American University of Beirut,
what are the most important changes that have taken place at the institution in the last 10 years?
We have new programs that are based on looking for information and doing market research and hearing the voices of our stakeholders–top management as well as employers and students. In last decade we embarked on strategic planning at institutional, faculty and large department levels. Of course all these efforts require institutional research. We have changed a lot of our policies and procedures; changes never stop. Now, our students are more involved in AUB activities, processes, as well as making decisions. Student engagement is really a main indicator of success. Research is supporting the significant contribution of students’ engagement to students’ achievement.
Do Arab governments understand the need for educational and institutional research?
Unfortunately, not yet. They are more taken by slogans and terms like “quality, quality assurance, accreditation.” But they do not see what is behind it. Some still ask what institutional research is.
How could universities play a positive role in raising interest in institutional research?
AUB is a leader in this field. Through the conferences we participate in we have been able to share our experience with other universities in Lebanon and the region. Based on that, there is a consortium of Lebanese universities where we meet every month to share our knowledge and what we are doing in this field. And this was very helpful for other universities to establish their own institutional-research offices. I know that three universities in Lebanon have already established their offices based on our work.
We are also working with other universities that have not established an institutional research office yet.
What are the challenges you are facing?
We need to keep ourselves updated all the time. Information is changing rapidly. It is of course more accessible than before, so we need to be able to catch up with all new information and chose which is useful and which is not. We also have always to try to improve the way we do things to meet our students’ needs. We have to provide them with the latest information and everything they need not only for jobs but also for life.
Basically, I believe in liberal arts education and its role of developing the whole person. We are building human beings whatever their fields of study. We are building their characters and dispositions so we need to make sure that we are achieving our mission of enhancing truth, cooperation, persistence, and collaboration.
How could you describe the current state of educational research in Lebanon?
Of course, the situation is not ideal, but there is a growing interest not only in Lebanon but also in different Arab countries in educational research. In Lebanon, we do have some basic data, although we do not have yet regulations for higher education and accreditation and quality assurance. The law is still being studied in the parliament. But the ministry has some regulations and also some data about enrollment, faculties [departments], and faculty members. The Unesco office has some information and also with the World Bank we worked together in a governance project where 16 [Lebanese] higher-education institutions – top private ones- participated in that project and they gathered intensive information.
The Lebanese Association for Educational Studies (LAES)is going to hold a new regional conference. Tell us about it.
We have a problem with the quality of dissertations done by graduate students in the region, both for doctorates and for masters’ degrees. The conference’s objective is to provide a platform for educational researchers to present their perspectives on the current state of research in graduate education.
Personally, I believe that the topic of this coming conference is very important as we are suffering from many problems related to documentation, style, referencing, abstracting. We also hope that this conference will help capture the current practices in master’s and Ph.D. programs in education in Arab countries, and will allow for a rich professional dialogue among its participants toward developing ideas and recommendations for improving these programs.
In the midst of the crises we are witnessing today in many Arab countries, how can education remain a top policy concern?
It is not easy task, but our theme is “Business as usual.” We have started a new academic year on September 4. We have not thought of re-scheduling or postponing our activities. After several years of war in Lebanon, we have learned to have business go on as usual. This is at an institutional level. At the policy level, this is a different issue especially here in Lebanon as nothing is happening on governmental level. The prime minister resigned and we have a caretaker government. So, we professors and institutions only have to keep working as usual without relying on any party.
This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.