Interview with Junchao Zhang and Min Chen

Junchao Zhang (pictured right) and Min Chen are faculty members at Huazhong University of Science and Technology in Wuhan, China.

Interview by Leah Ewing Ross

eAIR: Please briefly describe your work with IR in China.

Chen Zhang cropped 200.jpgWe are faculty members in the School of Education at Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST), which is one of the most famous higher education research centers in China. HUST also is one of the top 10 universities in China. We created the IR Research Center on our campus in 2000, and since then we have translated and compiled documents and books about IR from the U.S. There are seven professors at the Center. The director of the center is Xianjun Liu, who served as President of HUST and Dean of the School of Education. The associate director is Juming Zhao, who earned his Ph.D. at McGill University in Canada and spent many years in the U.S.

In 2003, Professors Liu and Zhao established China AIR, which was approved by the government in 2007; Professor Liu is the Director of China AIR. As the charter members of China AIR, we are responsible for dealing with matters related to the work of the organization, such as membership management, training workshops, the annual conference, and publications.

 eAIR: What progress or achievements have been made related to IR in China?

A few higher education researchers introduced IR in China in the 1980s and 1990s through the translation of papers from English into Chinese. Yet IR has gained great traction since the creation of the IR Research Center and China AIR. We push IR in China step by step.

The first step is research on IR; it is a new research field within higher education in China and we study it. Many topics are discussed, including: How should “institutional research” be translated and interpreted? Should IR be a discipline, a research field, or a profession? What are IR roles, processes, and characteristics? What methods should be used in IR? Should IR officers only focus on the issues at their own universities? Did China have IR before these recent efforts? How should analytical databases be built? How should IR roles in China be defined? Some scholars and researchers have published papers and books about these issues; such studies help people to understand the meaning, role, and importance of IR.

“We push IR in China step by step. The first step is research on IR…. The second step of our work addresses the transition from research on IR to IR practice.”

The second step of our work addresses the transition from research on IR to IR practice. Because higher education in China lacks basic and analytical databases, we utilized the case study method and monographic study as the breakthrough of IR, which was a good way to attract the attention of university executives and senior administrators, and to train IR beginners. At the same time, we collected and published a series of books entitled Case Studies of Institutional Research in China. The first textbook, Institutional Research, was published in 2008 by China Higher Education Press, and some universities offer IR courses in higher education graduate programs. If readers would like to learn more about IR in China, other books of interest include Strategic Management of University (2008, People’s Publishing House, IR Center of HUST), Institutional Development Research (2003 , HUST Press), and Case Studies of Institutional Research in China (2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, HUST Press).

Moreover, China AIR has held 10 annual conferences, which attract more and more researchers, IR practition
ers, and university administrators each year. Some national leaders and university presidents already realize the importance of IR. Yuanqing Zhou, former Vice Minister of the Department of Education, claimed that IR is a field with great potential and will help in the healthy development of higher education in China. Binglin Zhong, former President of Beijing Normal University, said that IR will have a flourishing future in micro and applied research, an important role in campus governance, and great impact on China’s higher education research field. However, as an emerging profession in China, we refer to it as the Emergence and Initial Development Stage of IR.

eAIR: What are the greatest challenges facing IR in China?

The greatest challenge facing in IR in China is how to build and use the database/information system. First, we do not have a national integrated higher education data system like IPEDS in the U.S. Second, integrated operational databases and analytical databases are very rare at universities in China. Additionally, many databases are confidential and are not open to the public. So, our next important step to push IR in China is to promote the development of a national integrated higher education data system and to encourage institutions to focus on integrated databases rather than isolated databases. 

“We were impressed and surprised by the level of professionalization of IR in the U.S.”

In the past decade, IR has informed a lot of work at HUST, including the Strategic Plan of the University (2010-2014), the Midterm and Long-term Strategic Plan of the University (2010-2020), and the Midterm Assessment Plan on Schools and Departments. The university president realized that these research plans were more scientific and more effective with the IR researchers’ engagement because the evidence presented included a lot of data in addition to the experiences and intuitions administrators relied on in the past.

eAIR: You recently spent time traveling in the U.S. Is there anything about IR in the U.S. that is of particular interest to you and your work in China?

We would like to express our great gratitude to our hosts in the U.S. for providing us with wonderful opportunities to learn with and from them. We visited the AIR Executive Office and the Certificate in Institutional Research program at Florida State University. We also visited the IR offices of Florida State, Florida A&M University, Stanford University and University of California, Berkeley. In addition, we visited the IR department at the University of California President’s Office and attended the California Association for Institutional Research (CAIR) 2012 Annual Conference in Orange County. We were impressed and surprised by the level of professionalization of IR in the U.S. The U.S. already has mature national and institutional databases. IR can now focus on data mining and data governance. Also, we were amazed by the role of IR-related professional associations. AIR and affiliated organizations can gather IR practitioners and researchers together through conferences and workshops to learn new skills, share findings, and discuss their work. During the CAIR conference, we were deeply moved by the passion, cooperation, and mutual aid demonstrated by attendees. That experience made us feel that we have a long way to go in China.

eAIR: What did you do for fun on your trip to the U.S.?

Our first stop was Miami, and we could not resist the temptation of the beauty of the Atlantic Ocean, so we took a cruise to the Bahamas. It was an unforgettable trip for us to experience the white beaches and charming paradise islands. We also spent a day at Disney World, which is a wonderful place.