In this blog we look at how higher education institutions can benchmark their internationalisation initiatives.
One approach to this is the IMPI project, funded under the Erasmus programme and initiated in 2009. Nuffic is one of the core partners of this project because of its expertise and activities in measuring internationalisation, such as the MINT web tool. The idea behind IMPI is to put the benchmark indicators of several national initiatives, such as MINT, into a single toolbox with indicators for benchmarking internationalisation.
What is benchmarking?
Benchmarking is an exercise in which internal processes and results are measured and compared with those of other institutions. We can distinguish several forms of benchmarking. Benchmarking can either be a one-on-one comparison between institutions or programmes. Or it can be a comparison between the results of one institution and the average results of a peer group. As a tool, benchmarking can bring in an external focus on internal activities. While self-evaluation uses internal and absolute targets, benchmarking uses external and relative targets.
Higher education institutions can have different reasons to engage in benchmarking. In the IMPI project, the main reasons to participate were to:
- strengthen networks;
- collect information;
- gain insight into possible areas of improvement;
- obtain accreditation or certification.
Some lessons learned
In a recent workshop, the participating higher education institutions from around Europe discussed the analyses of the IMPI benchmark exercise. The discussions showed that we can draw several lessons from the IMPI benchmarking exercise.
First, the exercise showed that institutional implementation of ‘lessons learned’ and actions for improvement require both bottom-up and top-down actions, resulting in a middle-out approach.
Second, it became clear that there is a need for assessing (the longer term) outcomes and impact of internationalisation. At the same time measuring outcomes is still considered very difficult because of a lack of relevant data and the need to establish relations between cause and results.
Balancing the level of homogeneity and heterogeneity
Does benchmarking make more sense in a group of similar institutions? Some IMPI project participants felt that detailed benchmarking is only possible in a homogeneous group because the benchmark data need to be comparable. Other participants, however, considered a large heterogeneity to offer many learning options. They valued the richness they noticed in their group due to the large diversity of backgrounds. One homogeneous group also said that it would like to do the benchmark exercise in a more heterogeneous group to be able to learn from other approaches and situations.
In one heterogeneous group of benchmark institutions we noticed that participants seemed to be more interested in their own results and sharing their experiences than in learning from each other. Rather than asking others how they had arrived at a certain point, they preferred to comment on their own situation. This was probably mainly due to the fact that the participants felt that the institutions were too diverse to compare. The value of a benchmarking exercise will be much higher if institutions make a good effort to accept the differences. The idea of learning from one situation to another is, in fact, one of the values of benchmarking which we feel has been underused in the IMPI benchmark exercise.
Level of detail of data
Experiences in the IMPI project showed that the collection of benchmark data generally focused on a very general level in order to allow all partners in the benchmark to deliver data. Very detailed data tend to be difficult to obtain, and if there are no data from one partner, then no comparison is possible on that indicator.
On the other hand, if the benchmark data are too general, then it is difficult to make sound comparative conclusions. Therefore, a good balance between general and specific data collection is necessary. It is also important to collect data over a period of several years to be able to see changes over time.
Goal of internationalisation
Once or twice, a benchmark group got wrapped up in a discussion which did not seem to lead to consensus on the selection of useful benchmarking indicators. In these cases, it turned out that reminding the group of the original goal set for internationalisation helped to refocus on the question the benchmarking exercise should answer. One of the tips from this project is therefore: don’t forget your goal when you are collecting or analysing data!
One of the sessions at Nuffic’s Annual Conference 2012, held in Amersfoort on 13 March, focused on benchmarking.
Next to the IMPI benchmark exercise the NIBS benchmark exercise was presented as well as a general introduction to benchmarking in internationalisation.