Bahrain's new university accreditation system to help establish strong reputation

 

As part of the kingdom’s attempts to grow into a regional education centre as well as expand into being a more knowledge-based economy, a strong emphasis has been placed on raising the quality of tuition on offer.

So far, this role has been filled by the Education & Training Quality Authority, which has carried out reviews and follow-up reports of 79 academic programmes at the country’s third-level institutions. Outcomes were reviewed against published standards that are bench-marked internationally by peer national, regional and international reviewers. Based on the outcomes of these reviews, programmes received judgements of “confidence”, “limited confidence” or “no confidence”. The review reports and their outcomes are published on the authority’s website.

Moving forward, the kingdom is rolling out a national university accreditation system, which is the result of a collaboration between Bahrain’s Higher Education Council (HEC) and the British Accreditation Council (BAC). Work has been under way on the new accreditation system since the two organisations signed a memorandum of understanding in October 2013, with the implementation of a national accreditation system one of six areas prioritised in the kingdom’s long-term sector plan, the National Higher Education Strategy 2014-24, aimed at transforming Bahrain into an educational centre for the GCC region and one also able to draw in international students from further afield.

The first pilot inspections at Bahraini universities were held in December 2015. The University of Bahrain, Bahrain Polytechnic and the Royal University for Women were the first institutions to receive preliminary accreditation under the new system.

BAC INVOLVEMENT: By involving BAC, a member organisation of the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education, Bahrain is hoping to establish standards of the level seen in UK higher education institutions, helping it establish a strong reputation in the region. On September 1, 2015 BAC and the Ministry of Education (MoE) signed a consultancy contract for BAC experts to visit Bahrain to conduct training workshops with those responsible for administering the new higher education accreditation scheme.

“BAC was chosen for many reasons, one being their experience, but also the relations between Bahrain and UK,” Farzana Al Maraghi, director of scientific research and acting director of accreditation and licensing for higher education institutions at the MoE, told OBG.

The process already seems to have had an impact, with the country’s international ranking ticking upwards in late 2015, according to Riyad Yousif Hamzah, the then-secretary-general of HEC and now president of University of Bahrain, speaking at the December 2015 launch of the accreditation system. “Our ratings in the 2015 global competitiveness innovation ranking have improved in seven out of eight indicators, significantly with a rise of 31 places in the university and industry collaboration indicator,” he said.

Compared to many countries in the region, Bahrain has left it late to establish a national higher education accreditation system. “Most universities were licensed before the HEC even existed,” said Al Maraghi. “The private higher education sector started in 2001 and the HEC was formed in 2006 to regulate the sector, with higher education laws only coming into effect in 2005.”

So far only the pilot has been implemented, with the MoE starting with three universities – two public and one private – and then taking feedback. “For the pilot, because it was really new, we had to have workshops with universities to introduce the concept of accreditation and its criteria, to engage them in the process and raise awareness,” Al Maraghi told OBG, adding that when everything is in place, it should take around four months for a higher education institution to go through the entire accreditation process.

UNIVERSITY CHALLENGE: The level of institutional accreditation being undertaken is significant, covering eight areas with 243 key indicators, and looking into every detail of the university’s educational and administrative setup. Despite the work involved, universities in Bahrain seem to have embraced the new system, while also praising the manner of its roll out.

“The HEC has done an excellent job communicating the new system, with briefings and a presentation with representatives from all of the institutions involved,” Ghassan F Aouad, president of Applied Science University (ASU), told OBG. “The handbook they published is very clear, and even though it covers so many areas in high detail, I have read every word of it several times.”

“Accreditation is going to change perceptions of higher education in Bahrain for sure,” Assem Al Hajj, vice-president for academic affairs and development at ASU, told OBG. “It already has improved standards here, and I also see what is happening in other institutions. It is raising the bar, and improving standards across the board. It will move Bahrain to the international stage,” he added. Like many universities in Bahrain, ASU began working towards its own accreditation at the end of 2015. “More international students will be coming to Bahrain. The impact will be immediate and we expect it to continue into the long term,” Al Hajj said.

FILLING A NEED: While Bahrain is keen to improve the quality of its university offerings, it is also hoping to grow its overall capacity, with an additional 20,000 students expected to enrol in tertiary courses in the country by 2025. Meanwhile, according to projections laid out in the 2014 higher education plan, international student numbers are expected to rise by 35% by 2025. The hope is that the national accreditation system will give international students greater trust in the quality of education on offer in Bahrain. This is also true for students from other Gulf states, where national accreditation schemes are already in place.

COMPETITION: Bahrain is the last country in the GCC region to begin the process of higher education accreditation, and as such the kingdom faces stiff competition from other countries further along in the process. In its 2014 strategic paper, the HEC highlighted the fact that economic fortunes for countries in the region are increasingly determined by the quality of their higher education sector, and that “strong competition exists within the GCC for universities to constantly improve and innovate to attract and produce the best skilled graduates”. Despite this, those involved in higher education in Bahrain feel the country, with its competitive student costs, tuition fees and living expenses, not to mention good location and quality of life, can become a major draw. “I think Bahrain will become a destination for international students,” said Al Hajj.

KEY ROLE: While the ultimate goal is to turn Bahrain into a regional centre for higher education, accreditation is also likely to play a key role in the development of the Bahraini economy. In its 2014 strategic paper, the HEC stressed the importance of improving the higher education sector. “Upgrading Bahrain’s higher education quality is critical to improving the employment and economic competitiveness of Bahrain,” the paper said.

Hamzah wrote in the first annual HEC report, released in 2012, that “Transforming the sector will take time. However, the intentions have been made clear that higher education institutions must work towards international standards quickly, and sub-standard education will not be accepted. Institutions must focus on having curricula that equip students with the skills that are required in the 21st century, such as problem solving, critical thinking and use of digital technology.”

BEYOND ACCREDITATION: At the same time as the accreditation system is being put in place, other important initiatives aimed at raising the standards of higher education provision are under way. “The other programme we are running now is a professional certificate for higher education for academic staff members, which we created in conjunction with the Higher Education Academy,” said the MoE’s Al Maraghi. The aim is to improve the teaching skills of the staff members in higher education. We also have initiatives bridging the gap between higher education and industry,” she added. Coupled with the new accreditation system, these could have a significant impact on the development of higher education facilities and economy.

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The Report: Bahrain 2017

Education chapter from The Report: Bahrain 2017