CIRPA 2013: Key Insights into Post-Secondary Institutional Research

What a great conference! Having attended the Canadian Institutional Research and Planning Association conference for the past few years, I knew that I was in for a great time meeting friendly people and attending engaging sessions – and I certainly wasn’t disappointed. The food was fantastic, the venue was beautiful and, best of all, the sessions were packed with inspirational ideas and case studies from Canada’s best universities and colleges.

For me, four themes stuck out at the conference:

Quality Measurement
Ensuring the quality of data collected remains an important issue for all researchers, and especially those at colleges and universities. Research best practices are changing to take into account important cultural shifts such as the increased use of mobile devices among students, the shift in the mixture of international and domestic students, and the changing dynamics of Canada’s economy. Not only are there important shifts in the demographics of students, but the increased thirst for more information within organizations is creating pressure for institutional researchers to ensure that data can be collected quickly and accurately.

There were some great sessions on how to manage research initiatives from various departments to make sure that students are not being over-surveyed, some practical tips on methodology so that institutions could accurately compare their results to important benchmarks, and a whole lot of discussion regarding how institutions can make sure the data they are collecting is as accurate as possible.

Doing More with Less
With institutional research departments under pressure to do more with fewer resources, many sessions offered valuable case studies and suggestions for how IR could be made more efficient. This included improving the efficiency of the data collection processes, making the most of publically available data, multi-year planning strategies, time and money-saving techniques, and using the data IR departments have to monitor important metrics such as satisfaction and retention.

Overall, it seemed that institutions were proactive in their approach to efficiency and it was paying off. There were many great insights from researchers in this area.

Collaboration vs. Competition
While in the past, many of the sessions at CIRPA conferences have focused on collaborative efforts between schools, this year there were a few sessions with a slightly competitive feel. Some discussed competitive intelligence while others discussed benchmarking their results against their peers to develop recruitment strategies.
Meanwhile keynote Ken Coates urged institutions to work together to work on the access and image problem with regards to Aboriginal Canadians. His address was an inspirational call to action for institutions to collaborate on something that would be of general benefit.

Clearly there are opportunities for institutions to work together to improve the performance in the sector overall. However, with fewer resources, competition between institutions is only increasing. I am interested to see how this trend evolves in the next few years.

Internal Communication
As a researcher, it’s difficult to be successful not only at measurement but also successful at implementation. I heard from several institutional research departments who were struggling with exactly the same thing that we struggle with as corporate researchers: how to distill all that great information down to a few actionable points that can be strategically implemented.

I also saw some really great solutions at various institutions, tackling things such as positioning the Institutional Research Department within the organization, disseminating the results publically in the form of a blog, tips on data visualization, and increased functionality of research results such as the ability to search.

Overall, the conference contained a lot of great insights. My favourite take-away? “DRF” – short for “Dean-Readable Format” – touches on all four key themes here: the challenge for the IR department is to efficiently collect accurate data and distill it to a small number of actionable insights that can be communicated and strategically implemented within the organization.

Author: Briana Brownell