Inaugural AAIR dinner meeting in Melbourne

21 March 2016

A humid Wednesday evening in Melbourne. A group of institutional researchers gathers. AAIRies from public and private higher ed providers, regulators, consulting businesses. Many crossing paths for the first time. Off campus in a quiet pub dining room. Initial reserve and uncertainty. Hamish Coates made a few remarks. Conversation took off. For almost two and a half hours we batted the breeze and time passed without note. The food was good, but to a person we ignored the option of seconds at the buffet, and no one stood to grab dessert.

Our dialogue turned on the professional role and recognition of institutional researchers, and the increasing significance of data (big, medium and small) as a decision support tool for institutional executives, students, teachers, governments and employers.

Most AAIRies know Hamish as an innovator who has marshalled the power of data to throw light on how higher education works and can work better. Professor of Higher Education at the University of Melbourne’s Centre for the Study of Higher Education, Hamish has contributed to the IR landscape through work on graduate outcomes at Graduate Careers Australia, developing and implementing AUSSE (Australian Survey of Student Engagement), and leading the charge on the OECD’s AHELO (Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes) project.

There’s a thread in Hamish’s career journey: what do learners gain from their higher ed experience? We spent a lot of time following it. We tugged at ideas like the notion of ‘value’ in higher education, how to think about productivity in the sector, what form of information disclosure we should make to students (prospective and current), how financing models lead us away from and closer to our core business, what leads higher education providers to outsource some IR work.

Hamish prodded us to consider what was wrapped up in the notion of institutional research as a professional endeavour. Our professional identity as IR practitioners is a little opaque, even to ourselves. Hamish proposed benchmarking Australasian IR practice with systems elsewhere in the world. You thought of the US, the UK and Europe, didn’t you? Well Hamish suggested we might think very seriously about China, Israel and Singapore. And we shouldn’t go in cap in hand but with an intention to share expertise and ideas. Australia has proved itself a top flight innovator in higher education over many years, from HECS to HEIMS (which Hamish counts among the finest national higher ed data collections on planet Earth).

Afterwards I wandered up the street, wondering about a question that arose in discussion: which data we collect, interrogate and report on really needs to be kept inside the institution, and which can and should we share? As Hamish noted, predictions that quality or commercial interests would be undermined by releasing data just haven’t come true. Publicly available data has improved debate time and again.

So many discussable morsels were laid out for us to choose from. We didn’t get to sample them all. Next time. There needs to be a next time. Hamish wanted to know how IR practitioners could lift the profile of institutional research in the sector and among its stakeholders. We need to get back to him with a few ideas on that score.

Rob Sheehan

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