Use of Evaluative and Comparative Information In the Management of Tertiary Education SystemsBratislava 17 June 2005Summary report from workshop break-out group discussions, made by Lewis PurserThe groups discussed the broad themes linked to current obstacles regarding theavailability of information, and how to improve this. The discussions developedaround a series of issues pertinent to these questions, and could be summarised in thefollowing structure.Actors: the groups discussed the range of actors which should be both involved andinterested in the optimal availability and dissemination of information regardinghigher education. Apart from the obvious involvement of the universities, at bothcentral and decentralised levels, the list of such actors includes the nationalauthorities, and also, depending on the size and structure of the country, the regionaland local authorities. The market is obviously also interested in information, and canbe segmented into the student market (students, their families and hopefully also theirhigh schools), the research market (a wide range of potential users of universityresearch and development expertise), and the services market, interested in theeconomic, social and cultural benefits to be gained from proximity or links to auniversity. These actors will all have different perspectives regarding the universityand therefore different interests and needs regarding information. Many of theirinterests could be grouped under the wider heading of the needs of societyResponsibilities. The responsibilities regarding information differ at various stages inthe chain, but are essential to identify in order to ensure minimal obstacles andmaximum effectiveness. The choice of which data is useful obviously depends on adialogue between different interested actors, each from its own perspective. The mainresponsibility to ensure an adequate choice of data responding to the widerinformation needs of society should lie with universities and government, but with theactive involvement of the other actors, as users of the information. Agreement on coredata sets or templates would be useful here and could provide a basis for developingmore specialised data sets to respond to specific needs. The issue of responsibility forthe supply of data is linked to the need for the accuracy and impartiality of such data.While the primary sources for much data will obviously be the higher educationinstitutions and, for data at a national level, the relevant authorities, there were strongvoices heard regarding the need for an independent responsibility for supplying datafor public use. The presentation and interpretation of such data are similar issues,although at these stages there are many possibilities for involving wider groups ofactors, including the media, think tanks, etc. In general, the need to evolve from areporting culture to an evaluation culture was stressed, and this will change theresponsibilities of the main actors involved.Types of data. Large amounts of data are currently already available, from a widevariety of sources: the universities, national statistics offices, various governmentalministries and other bodies, student and stakeholder groups. There tends to be a focuson data rather than on readily usable information. Furthermore, many such data arenot readily accessible to a non-specialist, and indeed would take considerable effort to
bring together and prepare in a usable format responding to an individual need forinformation. The data needs to respond to the perspectives of the various bodies,which can vary considerably. Some data, eg as used by accreditation agencies, isessentially part of a control mechanism, while other actors may be interested in datawhich focuses on improvement mechanisms. As already noted, there are currently fewagreed templates in the countries represented defining the core data sets necessary. Itwas agreed important to move from input-dominated data to output data as part of anincreased focus on the results of higher education for both individuals and society.The reliability of data is essential to the user and for the wider effective and efficientfunctioning of higher education systems. For this a strong emphasis needs to beplaced on mechanisms to ensure consistency of data across institutions and fields. Thepublication, wide availability and public scrutiny of the data will help identifypotential errors, and significantly reduce the possibilities for the deliberatemanipulation of data. One key issue for the universities and other major actors is theuse of well designed management information systems. This can imply significantcosts in ICT and in staff training.Discussions also focused on the role of agencies in supplying data. There wereideological differences regarding whether such an agency should be publicly orprivately funded, with both models being potentially open to undue influence througha variety of mechanisms, unless strong governance structures are put in place. Apublic-private partnership may be an interesting model to explore. Whatever themodel, the agency must have the authority to produce and publish the data which itconsiders necessary, including data which may be uncomfortable for variousimportant actors. The agency must also benefit from a certain degree of financialstability and independence in order to ensure its work can proceed without unduehindrance or interference. The sustainability of the information provision is vital,therefore the sustainability of the providing agency is also important.