Benchmarking is more than a simple comparison of data. It is a process of continuously monitoring and evaluating the quality and effectiveness of an institution’s operations by comparing them to good practices within the sector.
The scope of benchmarking in the field of education is not to standardise all courses and assessment outcomes, but to reveal variations and to establish whether those variations come from the individual nature of the courses, from the student cohorts, or from differences in the quality or academic standards.
TEQSA, the Tertiary Education Quality Standards Agency, has spent the last few years focusing on course quality, with the aim to see a level of consistency among the learning outcomes, whether they are from face-to-face or online courses.
In this regard, TEQSA has defined the following broad types of benchmarking that can be applied to higher education institutions at any one time:
1- Organizational benchmarking to compare elements at the organizational level (institution, faculty/department, school, course and unit levels)
2- Course benchmarking to compare course design and student performance
3- Process benchmarking to compare institution processes and practices
4- Outcomes benchmarking to compare generaloutcomes data and especially student outcomes
5- Best practice benchmarking to compare an institution with another one thought to be at the forefront in the area to be benchmarked.
Many Australian institutions currently undertake benchmarking discussions through internal self-evaluation reports. However, Professor Michael Sankey, from the Learning Futures department at Griffith University, believes there is a growing trend towards inter-institutional benchmarking, with the aim of promoting standardised benchmarks.
Over the past five years, several inter-institutional summits have successfully taken place across Australia and England, bringing together over 35 institutions from five different countries. The most recent was held in 2018 at Griffith University’s Southbank Campus and included 24 Australasian institutions.
Outcomes of the summits
According to a survey conducted after the event, 80% of those who attended the 2018 gathering believe the outcomes of the summit will help make changes at their institution by providing evidence to support the use of performance indicators. A similar percentage said that performance indicators and benchmarks could easily be utilised in many Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) scenarios, helping institutions have a clearer idea of where they currently stand and how they could progress.
In his work with the Australasian Council on Open Distance and e-Learning (ACODE), Professor Sankey has been part of the group instrumental in forming a set of eight benchmarks specifically addressing TEL. These benchmarks, which have been developed to assist institutions in their practice of delivering a quality TEL experience for their students and staff cover the following eight topic areas:
1- Institution-wide policy and governance for TEL;
2- Planning for institution-wide quality improvement of TEL;
3- Information technology systems, services and support for TEL;
4- The application of TEL services;
5- Staff professional development for the effective use of TEL;
6- Staff support for the use of TEL;
7- Student training for the effective use of TEL;
8- Student support for the use of TEL.
These benchmarks can be used singularly as standalone indicators or collectively to provide a perspective on the institution as a whole. Moreover, these benchmarks can be used in association with other institutions, as part of a collaborative evaluation exercise.
Professor Sankey acknowledges that an exhaustive benchmarking exercise typically takes place over a period of years. However, in any given year, two to three benchmarks can be easily addressed to identify specific areas for quality improvement. Both approaches have been used successfully by institutions since the ACODE Benchmarks for TEL were first introduced.
A rapidly changing education industry is putting institutions under great pressure to constantly review their performances and identify areas of improvement. Some of the issues may be remediated by simply taking the time to self-assess the institution’s performance against a set of quality indicators, like those provided by ACODE, while inter-institutional summits can provide suggestions and support to implement effective strategies to improve results. In any case, a solid and structured benchmarking policy will be empowering institutions with invaluable insights to successfully meet their most immediate challenges.