Benchmarking 10 Major Canadian Universities at the Divisional Level: A Powerful Tool for Strategic Decision Making

Article excerpt

Proulx reports on the continuing, decade-long exchange of data and benchmarking among Canada's most research-intensive universities.

Introduction1

It has taken almost 30 years for universities to borrow from the corporate world and integrate the concepts, methodologies, and logistics of various quantitative and qualitative evaluative processes (such as evaluation, assessment, and total quality management [TQM]) into institutional planning. It has taken even more time - beginning circa 1980 - for performance indicators, strategic planning, benchmarking, and ranking to gain broad acceptance. A rapid review of the recent history and evolution of benchmarking illustrates the exponential growth of its use to compare and rank universities: more than 40 countries2 now have national or regional university rankings, including

* America's Best Colleges published by U.S. News & World Report (see, for example, U.S. News & World Report 2010).

* Maclean's University Rankings produced by the Canadian magazine Macleans (see, for example, Dwyer 2008).

* The University Guide published by the Guardian in the United Kingdom.

* The CHE University Rankings produced by the Centre for Higher Education Development in Germany.

* Six other international university ranking and league tables systems that compare and rank world universities, such as the Academic Ranking of World Universities produced by the Shanghai JiaoTong University in China and the World University Rankings edited by The Times Higher Education Supplements the United Kingdom.

Very clearly, a change has occurred in university culture: benchmarking is now widely used throughout the world.

This cultural innovation necessarily has affected university institutional research activities. At one time, institutional research offices simply produced facts and figures that were collected and published as a "fact book," primarily for descriptive purposes. Starting in the early 1980s, data and metrics began to be related to other purposes such as quality improvement, strategic planning, and accountability. These data were then compared to metrics produced by peer institutions. Benchmarking has since contributed to more policy-oriented institutional research studies and has demonstrated the rich possibilities for the use of data analysis and reporting.

It was in this context that a consortium of 10 Canadian research-intensive universities launched a data exchange program in 1999 to share information that could be used to identify and evaluate the best practices of each institution and to help each institution position itself strategically to achieve its mission. One part of the program was devoted to collecting departmental-level academic data (instructional and financial) from these 10 institutions.

This project built on two previous studies by the consortium that were experimental and limited in focus. In 2001-2002 and 2002-2003, data for six and 12 academic departments, respectively, were collected. In 2003-2004, the goal was more comprehensive: between 30 and 35 academic departments (figure 1) were benchmarked using 24 variables (figure 2) in comparisons based on selected indicators. This article presents the data from 2003-2004 as a case study to illustrate the purpose and methodology (process, variables, indicators, and ratios) of benchmarking. In addition, the article presents the results of this exercise and describes the multiple uses made of the data generated by the program.

History and Purpose of the Benchmarking Initiative

In 1999, an informal group of presidents from Canada's 10 most research-intensive universities3 voluntarily agreed to create a data exchange consortium to be known as the Group of Ten Data Exchange (GIODE).The G10DE comprised the directors of the institutional research offices from each of the G10 institutions and was modeled after the Australia Group of Eight (G8, see www. …