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New benchmarking tool helps universities grade themselves

Adriana Jaramillo's picture
Also available in: Français | العربية
World Bank | Arne Hoel | 2011Arab World Higher Education Ministers have endorsed a screening card tool to benchmark university governance across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). Developed by a higher education program at the World Bank supported  Marseille Center for Mediterranean Integration, it is aimed at benchmarking university governance and identifying different patterns and “fitness for purpose” to help higher education institutions understand how they can improve performance.

Tertiary education enrollment is high in MENA compared to other countries at same development levels. On average, more than 30 percent of the population aged 18 to 24 is enrolled in higher education and that number has been growing rapidly.  Current demographic trends and the rapid expansion of secondary education suggest that this growth will continue through the current decade.  This will stretch countries’ education budgets and their capacity to deliver high quality and relevant learning opportunities.

Despite the availability of a growing and increasingly educated workforce, the average unemployment rate in MENA countries is 25 percent for young people between 18 and 25, more than twice the world average of 11 percent. Although unemployment has increased worldwide as a consequence of the 2008-2009 financial and economic crisis, when tertiary education graduates from MENA are compared with those in OECD countries, persistently high unemployment rates can be observed for the length of the past decade. In countries like Tunisia, the rate has dramatically increased in the last ten years as seen in the figure below.

Proportion of unemployed adults with a tertiary education degree

Source: WB Breaking Even or Breaking Through, 2011 Report

All MENA countries face the challange of accelerating economic growth and creating work opportunities for their increasingly educated labor force. There is also a need to bridge the gap between education supply and labor market demands: this means that universities themselves are essential institutions for promoting economic growth and require attention as such.  Universities not only create and disseminate knowledge, they also attract talented people, inject new ideas, enrich cultural life, and are connected to the economic and political environments in which they operate.  A clear and purposeful mission implemented by effective management, a balance of autonomy and accountability, and representative and meaningful stakeholder participation in decision-making mark “good governance” in any organization, whether university or government.  Particularly in the wake of the Arab Spring of 2011 which left national-level governance in the region at a pivotal juncture, universities in MENA are the ideal launching ground for development; well-performing universities are uniquely positioned to provide much-needed leadership.

University governance is one of the key elements that can lead to improving outcomes. Altbach and Salmi (2011) report that the  important factors for  successful world-class universities are leadership, government policy and funding, the ability to continually focus on a clear set of goals and institutional policies, development of a strong academic culture and quality of academic staff.

University governance is also an important driver of change and how institutions are managed is one of the most decisive factors in achieving their goals. There are many governance models and these vary according to the national context, the type of institution, the historical legacy and other cultural, political and sometimes economic factors. It is clear that there is not a “one size fits all” approach to university governance. It is also evident that the potential governance model of a given institution must be a well thought out decision. 

In MENA, higher education institutions have expressed a specific need for a governance benchmarking tool.  In response to this call, the World Bank’s MENA regional program on higher education developed a “University Governance Screening Card” to assess whether universities in the MENA region are following good governance practices aligned with their institutional goals.  The screening card itself does not exemplify a model of “good governance” but it allows universities to compare themselves with other institutions and to monitor their progress over time.

The  screening card has been tested in 40 universities in four countries: Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and West Bank and Gaza. It constitutes a first step towards developing a more comprehensive tool to monitor university performance. Governance being one, if not the most critical dimension, to understand how universities can improve their performance, this is an entry point  to assessing other dimensions such as quality assurance, student learning outcomes, quality of teaching and research, and employability of graduates.

The use of this tool in 40 universities has yielded a few lessons on the advantages of benchmarking and how it can be a powerful mechanism to generate reforms. It constitutes a very important milestone in improving accountability for social service delivery, and it is an exemplary and courageous journey that these 40 institutions have undertaken.

Screening Card-Four country average:
Differences between self-perception and results based on the questionnaire

While examining the results for each individual university and country, a common element revealed during the country discussions at a November 2011 workshop in Cairo was the screening card’s value-added.  The participants’ enthusiasm and a resulting awareness of governance concepts within institutions are powerful indicators of the screening card’s potential to encourage meaningful change.  Another notable take-away was the difference between perception and reality: overall, universities perceive that they are more autonomous, have more clearly defined mission statements, and have better levels of participation among stakeholders than what is revealed by the test. 

Six additional countries: Algeria, Bahrain, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Sudan showed an interest in participating in the project and the World Bank is planning an expansion to Iraq, Lebanon and Algeria by June this year.  The “University Governance Screening Card” has a wide reach and will change university management in many countries.

How this benchmarking tool was developed, what has been the methodology used to measure and score University Governance, and the lessons learned from its use and validation in four countries are available here.