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Staff Crisis Hits Higher Education Data Centre

Melanie Swan, The National
August 10, 2014

A nationwide project to collect crucial data about higher education has stalled after three of its four staff left.

Education researchers and policymakers have voiced their dismay over the staffing problems affecting the Centre for Higher Education Data and Statistics.

They say the absence of a central database on universities and colleges hampers their work, and makes it more difficult for students to make the right choice for their higher education.

For the past two years the centre, run by the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, has compiled enrolment data, staff qualifications and demographics of staff and students at more than 70 ministry-accredited universities and colleges, with the aim to be a public resource for both potential students and policy makers.

The data was acquired and collated by three staff working under the head of the project, Prof. David Woodhouse. But Prof. Woodhouse has retired and two of his statisticians have left and have not been replaced. Education professionals say they now have to find the information themselves, which is not the best use of their time.

Dr. Fatima Badry of the American University of Sharjah said: “As a researcher on education policy and the effectiveness of reforms in higher education I have spent an enormous amount of time searching websites of each university to get basic information on such issues as enrolment numbers, percentages of nationals in each institution by college or major, information about faculty and top administration backgrounds, expenditure on research, and so on.

“This time could have been spent more effectively on analysis.”

Dr. Badry said a central database would be helpful to both researchers and policy makers as it would ensure the validity and reliability of the data to be analysed and result in conclusions based on facts rather than conjecture.

“It would also offer more consistency in the reporting which would make comparisons possible,” she said, and without such a database a study of trends in the sector was almost impossible.

“As a result the effectiveness of the policies and the constant reforms cannot be assessed appropriately. For students and parents it would be helpful for them to be able to have information on prospective universities that is independent of university-provided profiles on their websites. It will help them do comparisons and make more informed choices.”

Dr. Cindy Dutschke from the American University of Sharjah’s department of institutional effectiveness, who helped the centre’s statisticians to collect data from the university, said that although it was a time-consuming project it was worthwhile in that it allowed the university to compare itself against others.

“It is a full-time group of three to four to keep this project going. Someone has to receive the data, validate it and follow up for corrections, put it into a database, and then prepare meaningful reports. There will be no way this project can succeed if it does not have that team in place at the ministry.”

Dr. Natasha Ridge, head of research at Sheikh Saud bin Saqr Al Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research, hopes the project will be restarted.

“The database as it was envisioned would have been a great tool for policy makers and researchers and it would be great if the project still continued. It’s unique in that there is nothing else like this in the UAE, or as a comparison in the Gulf region, giving the UAE the opportunity to lead the way in making data available to policy makers and academics.”

Dr. Nabil Ibrahim, chancellor of Abu Dhabi University, agreed it was important the project continued.

“The objective of the project has been to provide institutions with comparative data to help them assess their institutional effectiveness and academic quality and hence enable them to plan for continuous improvement,” he said. “I certainly would like to see the project continue regardless of whether it is administered by the Ministry of Higher Education or Abu Dhabi Education Council. Abu Dhabi University would greatly benefit from this project.”

Prof. Badr Aboul-Ela, director of the higher education ministry’s commission of academic accreditation, said the data centre’s work would continue although there was only one staff member. “In all businesses people come and go and as long as there are institutional policies and plans with clear follow up, work will go on.”