Why benchmarking in HE is not just a tick-box exercise

Benchmarking is often one of those add-on or after-thought activities higher education institutions conduct, generally when embarking on an external accreditation or re-accreditation exercise. It is a commonly accepted facet of quality assurance in higher education aimed at affirming an institution’s standing in the sector.

Once completed, the data gathered (not necessarily all of it), usually about how well the institution performed on an array of measures against another institution, is included in a formal report and the appropriate box ticked to indicate completion of the task. Very little is done with the data until another external review is due.

This interpretation might be considered rather critical of what takes place. However, I can attest to this being a too frequent practice adopted by some higher education institutions. The point is, institutions often fail to fully capitalise on the benefits associated with benchmarking.

Benchmarking commonly refers to the systematic comparison of an institution’s inputs, processes and outputs against those of external partner organisations. Benchmarking can be conducted as a whole of institution exercise, be discipline-specific or standards-based and take place with partner institutions on a national or international level.

More than a comparison exercise

Benchmarking with partner or other institutions provides a valuable opportunity to share knowledge and experience, identify gaps in current practices and hence opportunities for improvement, highlight new approaches and-or systems as well as ideas and bring a critical external focus to any review process.

Comparisons can also be made internally between units and-or programmes of study within an institution. It is about much more than getting a sense of where you are performing well and not so well in relation to other institutions.

It can enhance understanding of what is working and reveal what is possible to improve; it can inform planning and goal setting; and it can introduce novel good practices arising from independently arrived at benchmarking findings that facilitate performance improvements as required.

How to get the most out of benchmarking

While there is no prescribed methodology for conducting benchmarking exercises, expectations must be established and agreed to prior to commencement. These include how the sharing of data and publication of findings are to occur and negotiating rights relating to any intellectual property developed in the course of the benchmarking exercise.

Any benchmarking should be mutually beneficial to all parties and support the institution’s mission, goals and strategic priorities. In my experience when selecting an external benchmarking partner, it is advantageous that the partner institution is of comparable size, with analogous values and mission and delivers similar programmes of study.

It is also advantageous to include both quantitative and qualitative measurements.

To get the most out of any benchmarking exercise, it is important to clarify which areas are to be benchmarked and the level of benchmarking to occur. The focus must be on a willingness to share, a commitment to learn from good practice and to improve practices, programmes or services offered.

In that way, it is an ongoing process and one that provides the potential for supplementary collaboration.

Before undertaking benchmarking, an institution should conduct a self-analysis to obtain a well-defined picture of what and how well the areas earmarked to benchmark are currently working. The latter helps establish targets for improved performance.

Learning from others

Done well, benchmarking is much more than a hurried one-off data-gathering exercise. It validates cyclic reviews of the higher education institution’s data against the sector and contributes to the development and implementation of action plans to ensure the institution is at least equivalent to peer institutions. It supports an institution in evaluating the success of its strategic goals, processes and practices.

It is about the potential to improve performance through learning from others and, in that way, it is significantly about taking actions based on the data gathered, not just reporting them. Communicating the findings, including those that may not be complimentary to the institution, is also important.

Benchmarking offers an evidence-based reveal about where changes need to occur and promotes openness to new ideas or practices. In this way, it is another tool for institutional strategic planning and goal setting. Perhaps because the actioning of changes is the most challenging feature of the benchmarking process, it is often inadequately completed.

However, merely preparing and sharing the report and identifying where improvements are needed are inadequate and this will be made uncomfortably evident when the next major institutional review or external re-accreditation is due. There will be an expectation that endorsed recommended actions resulting from benchmarking findings were implemented followed by a process of review and reflection.

Learning about learning

Higher education is about learning, teaching, scholarship and research. Higher education institutions should be continuously assuring and enhancing the quality of these areas and benchmarking should be part of an institution’s continuous quality assurance procedures.

Benchmarking results are a useful adjunct to the latter as a means of providing an independent perspective about how an institution stacks up compared to other like institutions. The results measure performance against targets set out in an institution’s strategic plan, underline problems and highlight new approaches.

Benchmarking performance is a vital component of maintaining quality teaching, research and services and making improvements as required.

Dr Nita Temmerman has held senior university positions including pro vice-chancellor (academic quality and partnerships) and executive dean in Australia. She is an invited accreditation specialist with the Hong Kong Council for Accreditation of Academic and Vocational Qualifications and international associate with the Center for Learning Innovations and Customised Knowledge Solutions, Dubai. She is chair of two higher education academic boards, invited professor and consultant to universities in Australia, the Pacific region, Southeast Asia and the Middle East.