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Reforming higher education in Albania

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HESA’s expertise in data and analysis is recognised around the world. Last week I spent three days in Albania discussing reform of their higher education sector and advising the government on implementing a new data-driven system.  

Background

The plans for reform in Albania are ambitious and impressive, with many new challenges, many that will be familiar to anyone used to dealing with the UK higher education data system.

Albania is a small country with big plans for its higher education sector. They have modelled their reforms on the UK system, with significant input also from the Italian government

Albania is a small country with big plans for its higher education sector. They have modelled their reforms on the UK system, with significant input also from the Italian government (there are strong and historical links between Albania and Italy). The government has established a funding body (based on HEFCE), a quality assurance body (based on QAA), and is in the process of establishing a data body (based on HESA). Their data plans encompass student data, courses, graduate destinations and research activity.

In the past, the country has had a problem with over-proliferation of private universities, many of which were either of poor quality or downright fraudulent. The current administration has taken a robust and forthright approach to this problem – forcefully rooting out corruption and closing large numbers of institutions in quick succession. The tough approach they have taken has yielded impressive results – one of which is the creation of a healthier community of like-minded university leaders across the public and private sectors who are working together to make the subsequent reforms work.

A data-driven higher education system

The Albanian government has plans to connect students, institutions and policy-makers through a shared data system in which all parties can access the same information in real time.

So how does data fit in to this? That's where I came in. We discussed this over the course of a two-day conference and a series of meetings with government officials. The Albanian government has plans to connect students, institutions and policy-makers through a shared data system in which all parties can access the same information in real time. Changes to the data will be flagged immediately on both sides of the system (i.e. for providers and for government). Student choices will be driven more by data – in terms of both the requirements for entry to different courses and institutions, and the relative success of institutions in placing graduates in the labour market. Data will also be used increasingly to allocate resources at national level, although the steps taken in this direction are more tentative.

The government and its agencies (for example - RASH, the Albanian equivalent of Jisc) are building the infrastructure to support these changes (with support from the EU, UK and from CINECA – the Italian equivalent of UUK). Much of the IT infrastructure is now in place and they are focusing on data models, specifications, user engagement, analytics and implementation.

Indeed, it could be said to be another indication of a European, even a worldwide, movement towards data-driven higher education.

If all of this sounds familiar, that’s because it draws heavily on the UK experience, as well as others Europe-wide. Indeed, it could be said to be another indication of a European, even a worldwide, movement towards data-driven higher education. In the UK, the data systems underpinning student choice, performance indicators, research assessment and learner analytics are advanced and evolving (especially now with the introduction of the TEF). Other countries are making similar changes, and there is much we can contribute to these developments, as well as much we can learn from them.

Advantages and challenges

Albania has a number of advantages that mean it is well placed to succeed in its ambition to establish a data-driven HE system, but also faces a number of challenges.

Albania has a number of advantages that mean it is well placed to succeed in its ambition to establish a data-driven HE system, but also faces a number of challenges.

On the positive side are their relatively small scale, the ambition and energy of their staff, and their openness to learning from more mature systems (and therefore avoiding having to make the same mistakes). They are at a point in their evolution where they can take advantage of the most up-to-date technology and approaches, and move directly, for example, to close to real-time data capture and analysis. This is something that will take longer, and will be more complex to implement, in the UK through the Data Futures programme.

There is also a tight relationship between government and institutions, which, to some extent, makes implementation more straightforward. Finally, there is a demographic imperative to provide a better offer for Albania’s youth, to avoid the brain-drain to the rest of Europe, and to build up the country’s human and intellectual capital to support economic growth. That kind of context tends to concentrate the minds of policy-makers.

HESA will be working closely with the Albanian government on developing and implementing their system in the coming months.

But there are challenges, too. University leaders are yet to be fully persuaded of the value of advanced data analytics in the management of their institutions. There is work still to be done in building up trust in the data and its uses – on the part of the government, academics, institutional leaders and students. There is, rightly, a great deal of concern to ensure that the appropriate protections are in place concerning the collection, processing and use of personal data. The government is experimenting with devolving more autonomy and authority directly to institutions, and it will take time for all parties to work out the best way to use this. Finally, there is the fact that performance metrics need to be further embedded in university management. Metrics are never the whole story, but their use is becoming increasingly prevalent. The practice of doing this in Albania is relatively new, and (as the experience of the UK has shown over many years) there are practical and cultural issues to be overcome in order to make such a system work effectively for everyone.

HESA will be working closely with the Albanian government on developing and implementing their system in the coming months. Not only is there much we can offer, but there is much also we can learn, especially as our own system in the UK is undergoing so much change.

We’re supporting the delivery of a data-driven HE system in Albania

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Paul Clark

Paul Clark

Chief Executive