Connecting Across International Boundaries

From left to right: Michelle Appel, Director of Assessment and Decision Support, University of Maryland/AIR Vice President; Ellen Peters, Director of Institutional Research and Retention, University of Puget Sound/AIR President; Rob Toutkoushian, Professor of Higher Education, University of Georgia; and Dr. Jong-Tsun Huang, University Professor at China Medical University in Taiwan

eAIR recently spoke with AIR member visitors to Taiwan: Michelle Appel, Ellen Peters, and Rob Toutkoushian about their experiences visiting with Taiwan-AIR members and why connections with IR professionals around the world are so important for the future of higher education. eAIR also spoke with Dr. Jong-Tsun Huang about his perspectives regarding IR in Taiwan, Taiwan-AIR, and challenges he faces compared to his IR counterparts in the U.S. 

eAIR: What was the main purpose for your visit to Taiwan with the Taiwan Association for Institutional Research (Taiwan-AIR)?

Michelle: I spoke at their November 2017 International Conference. I was invited, along with Brent Drake from UNLV, to discuss how data can be used to foster student success.

Ellen: I was invited to deliver the keynote for their conference, themed  “Institutional Research and University Development Strategy.” I spoke about the Duties and Functions of Institutional Research, providing one curricular and one operational example of how these duties and functions advance an institution.

Rob: In November 2016, I was invited by the Higher Education Evaluation and Accreditation Council of Taiwan (HEEACT) and Taiwan-AIR to speak at their Higher Education Institutional Research conference in Taipei, Taiwan. The focus of my presentation was on the implementation of IR and quality assurance mechanisms. In particular, I shared a general framework that institutional researchers use to develop performance indicators, collect data for these indicators, and explain how they can be used (addressing concerns) with decision makers on their campus and in their government. I was fortunate to also have the opportunity after the conference to spend a few days with a colleague, Eric Lin, who is the IR director at National Tsing Hua University (NTHU), and learn about the type of work his office is doing.

eAIR: What are some of the key takeaways regarding the importance of connecting across international boundaries?

Michelle: Where to start? There were so many! The old adage that we are more similar than we are different really holds true. IR practitioners are passionate about our students and our institutions no matter what country we work in. And nuance really matters when talking about the data we have and its meaning - there are things we may measure or interpret somewhat differently because of the contexts in which we are working. I always enjoy seeing other practitioners' work - and that was the case in Taiwan. I saw the work of several universities and was able to bring home ideas sparked by their research. I also learned about really interesting and amazing work going on here in the U.S. from my colleagues in Taiwan - they knew about Purdue's forecast system real time data to help nudge students. 

Ellen: Speaking only of what I learned from my colleagues in Taiwan, their IR function is nascent, so, it provides a lot of opportunity for us to share what we’ve learned. Even more, it’s an opportunity for us to see what they are extracting as the most critical elements of IR, and how they are using IR to make a case for continued funding (which they must do, as IR funding comes from the government and if they can’t make a case, there won’t be an IR function.) I was really impressed by how quickly they have developed interactive infographics, and how rigorous their research is. As some of us in the U.S. try to figure out how we can manage an increasing workload of applied IR and contribute to the scholarly body of work, our Taiwan colleagues seem to depend on their scholarly work to do the applied work; I’d like to learn even more about how they are able to manage that.

Rob: The conference and follow-up meeting at NTHU were very helpful to me to not only better understand the context of higher education and IR in Taiwan, but to see some of the similarities in the issues we are all facing. Although the IR function in the U.S. may be a bit more mature, I learned a great deal from my friends and colleagues in Taiwan. It was refreshing to see that they place an emphasis on scholarly research as a means to inform higher education policy in Taiwan, and that some of their IR offices were heavily engaged in this type of work. My visit also served as a springboard for collaboration with Dr. Lin and his staff.

eAIR: What are some challenges being experienced by our IR colleagues in Taiwan? Are they similar to those being experienced by IR practitioners in the U.S.?

Michelle: We talked extensively about how to ensure that students are engaged in learning and making educational gains, how to demonstrate the value and quality of the education our students receive, and the role that the government and accrediting agencies play in the process, including the data they collect. 

The data conversation was really interesting as our colleagues in Taiwan are just starting to build these systems, while in the U.S. we have had federal data systems for decades. However, we had lots of conversation about the value of unit record data and how that might be implemented in both countries. Given the variety of individuals engaged in those conversations during my visit (government ministers, accreditors, presidents, and IR practitioners) these conversations provided a rich variety of perspectives and opinions.

Ellen: I was struck by how similar our challenges are, but for very different reasons, all driven by culture. Both countries face concerns about student engagement – in Taiwan, it is due to an educational structure and culture that leads students down a particular path early on, and drives them toward success (both in grades and persistence) rather than exploration or enjoyment. In the U.S., it is due to (among other things) increasing mental health issues, and reduced face to face interaction as “screen time” takes precedence. In addition, there are financial pressures on institutions in both countries. In Taiwan, it is because the revenue stream comes from the government, and institutions do not have flexibility in budgeting – in setting tuition, or in the amounts they can pay faculty, etc. And while our public institutions face similar challenges in terms of tuition revenue, our private institutions face financial pressures due to tuition dependency and increasing discount rates. Both countries are searching for alternative sources of revenue to support teaching and learning.

Rob: There are definitely similarities. Policy makers are pushing for simple solutions and indicators to guide their decision making, and yet all of the quality assurance indicators that are typically derived have important limitations to them. Accordingly, a universal IR challenge is how to comply with demands and yet guide campus leaders in their correct use. At the same time, IR in Taiwan does not yet have the data infrastructure at the national level that we enjoy here in the U.S. This limits the ability of our IR colleagues in Taiwan to conduct the type of comparisons and analyses that are more commonly done in the U.S. However, the people I met with in Taiwan understand this and are actively working to address the situation.

eAIR: Taiwan-AIR is supported at the highest levels of your institutions and government - what is the driving motivation in working to promote IR and the international collaboration?

Dr. Huang: Taiwan-AIR was launched two years ago through the help of the Ministry of Education (MOE) and the universities. The Association was established with the hope that IR in Taiwan can be upgraded to an international level within a short period of time. The MOE even initiated a boost project to promote IR studies in the universities. The result was that 52% (76 universities) set up IR offices with the goal of implementing data warehouses within two years. The consensus among the universities, Taiwan-AIR, and the MOE is that the operation of IR offices should be internationally compatible so that the evidence-based decision support system can be upgraded to international standards. The best way to fulfill this purpose is to strengthen the international collaborations with AIR in the U.S.

Quality assurance measures like institutional reviews and program accreditations were widely conducted in the universities some 13 years ago. The institutional review is mandatory by conforming to the requirements of the University Act and the program accreditation is now a choice under governmental subsidies. Since 2016, Taiwan tertiary education has been seriously impacted by a shortage of students. The trend will continue for a 10-year period and the result is a 1/3 decrease in the total number of enrolled students. This is due to the stable and continuing decrease in total fertility rates over the last 20 years. The survival pressure of the universities ignites the strong need for effective university governance to secure a source of students for a high net enrollment rate over 70%. IR has quickly been targeted to address the need for monitoring and promoting student learning effectiveness, among other issues. The number of IR offices in universities has been growing rapidly, but the expertise still needs to be strengthened and coordinated. We have already established many mission-oriented databases in nearly all 145 universities over the past 15 years for applying various competitive or regular subsidy programs. We also have sufficient technical support from various disciplines like educational, statistical, big data, IT, database building, and decision scientists on campus. The problem is that we must coordinate the team to work out a coherent data management system under the new fabric of the IR office so that a data driven and evidence-based decision support system can be effectively implemented in the universities. For this purpose, the expertise of AIR in the U.S. is the best consulting place to begin.      

eAIR: What are some of the key takeaways regarding the importance of connecting across international boundaries?

Dr. Huang: Taiwan has undergone a long collection of big data concerning student learning outcomes and other academic and administrative records over 18 years for professional and technical universities. for more than 15 years, general and comprehensive universities under various requirements have been applying for boost projects or subsidy programs. The data has been collected not only in the universities themselves but also in a centralized way mandated by the MOE. However, the data collections have been done for different purposes without setting a standard or comparable format and input categories across universities - or across different departments in the same university - from the very beginning. Therefore, it is necessary to upgrade the data management system toward an internationally comparable standard so that a genuine evidence-based decision support system can be accomplished with a faster pace.

We found that immediate and face-to-face expert communications are the best and the most effective ways to achieve this goal. Therefore, we have actively attended the AIR Forum since 2015. We have organized a team of 30-50 members to participate over the years. Thanks to AIR’s enthusiastic support, Taiwan-AIR has been listed as a professional affiliated international association with AIR. To take advantage of this connection, we also invited the AIR President, Vice President, and Past President, as well as other experts from various universities, mostly in the U.S, to join our Taipei convention as keynote speakers.

eAIR: What are some challenges you experience as an IR practitioner in Taiwan? Are they similar or different to those being experienced by IR practitioners in the U.S.?

Dr. Huang: There are indeed some challenges we are experiencing as IR practitioners in Taiwan, including the shortage of budgetary support and recruitment of full-time professionals, a lack of the campus awareness on the facilitative role that an evidence-based support system can play, and a lack of strong support from the university presidents. However, the situation is improving in a satisfactory way. In the newly released National Project for Supporting the Universities (including the support for university infrastructure and nurturing, boosting international competitiveness, and pursuing research excellence), which is a continuation of the World-Class University Boost Project and Teaching and Educational Excellence Project over the last decade, universities are required to submit proposals to explain how IR offices are being implemented effectively and how university social responsibility can be achieved through the help of IR studies.

We do have different IR emphases in Taiwan. For example, we emphasize enrollment (under low fertility pressure) rather than retention in the universities. And we must demonstrate the positive effects in improving student learning effectiveness for applying governmental subsidies. Under the inflexible tuition fee system, the universities must disclose their financial conditions to assure quality education.

There are two different needs for promoting IR studies and data warehouses in Taiwan. One need is intrinsic, the universities try to establish their IR offices in a similar and compatible way across universities, therefore, the need for training for professionals is high. Taiwan-AIR is busy sponsoring monthly activities for hosting experience sharing and exchange programs between universities. The Association has opened technical workshops that occur every two months on data analysis, data warehouse building; featuring the speeches for the evidence-based decision issues. The other need is related to the across-universities comparison that is instrumental for the setting-up of national policy on higher education. Identical set of data registry items or categories are designed and called for input from the concerned universities. We then have two types of IR establishment. One is dealt with in the university, mainly for university governance and information dissemination for attracting new students to enroll. The other is dealt with across the universities so that meaningful comparisons or monitoring processes can be conducted by the MOE. The universities are monitored to assure the openness and reliability of information disclosure, which is useful for students to select in which university they prefer to enroll. Moreover, this procedure of implementing a national IR system across the universities is believed to be helpful in fulfilling the public nature and accomplishing the social responsibility mission of the universities. I think these aspects could be different from our counterparts in the U.S.  



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