Bahrain raises game to attract foreign students

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With the aim of creating a niche for itself as a top student destination in the Gulf, Bahrain hopes international students will fill up to 35% of all university places over the next decade, according to projections from the national education plan.

Until recently, the kingdom had been one of the region’s leading providers of education to overseas students. Within the GCC, Bahrain has already been able to capture 10% of overseas students. According to 2012 figures, the kingdom attracted more students than it sent abroad.

However, a strategy paper issued last year by the Higher Education Council (HEC), which oversees tertiary education in Bahrain, said that while the kingdom had outstanding potential to attract students from the region, recent concerns over the quality of some universities had diminished the flow of inbound students, especially from key markets such as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

In its study, entitled National Higher Education Strategy 2014-24, the HEC said strong quality assurance policies and mechanisms were vital in developing confidence and attracting foreign enrolments. It said by doing that, Bahrain could become the “foremost student-friendly, quality-focused higher education destination of the GCC”.

Reviewing & boosting offerings

As a result of the HEC’s observations, Bahrain is moving to review its educational offerings, with part of this process being driven by the National Authority for Qualifications and Quality Assurance for Education and Training (QQA). The QQA was established as a result of the National Education and Training Development Project unveiled in 2006, the blueprint for a modern and competitive higher education system.

Tasks assigned to the authority include reviewing schools’ quality assurance arrangements by identifying strengths as well as areas in need of improvement; carrying out programme assessments to ensure international standards are being met; and acting as an advocate for Bahraini higher education.

The QQA not only assesses educational institutions but also the qualifications issued in order to ensure international standards are met, a move that is critical if Bahrain is to increase the number of overseas students applying to undertake courses in the kingdom.

Bahrain currently has more than a dozen universities, a mix of public, private and regional institutions, all of which are subject to review by the QQA. The authority also provides quality control assessments of more than 40 vocational and technical institutes, which are core to the government’s educational plans to build a workforce that can sustain the needs of an increasingly diversified economy.

An image of excellence

It is vital for Bahrain’s education system to successfully project an image of excellence, according to Jawaher Al Mudhahki, the CEO of the QQA, with a need for more awareness of quality assurance.

“Bahrain has a confident education sector, even though the QQA is fairly young,” Al Mudhahki told OBG. “There is a strong desire to build capacity for quality assurance and spread the culture of awareness.”

The assessment process of educational facilities at all levels will boost confidence in the system and serve to drive further improvements, she said.

“Knowing the quality ranking of our schools is a prerequisite to improving their quality,” Al Mudhahki said. “We have seen strong strides of progress made since the first rankings were made, as parents, students and teachers become more aware of their schools' rankings and push to improve them.”

Confidence boost

Saad Darwish, vice-president for administrative and financial affairs and community engagement at the privately owned Applied Science University (ASU), said the QQA’s review process could serve to attract fee-paying overseas students.

“Huge progress is being made by the Higher Education Review Unit of the QQA,” Darwish told OBG. “Bringing up the quality of Bahrain’s offering overall and formally performing quality assurance checks will help bring in students from the rest of the Gulf and elsewhere.”

For its part, ASU is intending to expand its appeal by bolstering its research capacity, in cooperation with the public and private sectors. “This is one of our key pillars, and advancing research would bring Bahrain to the next stage in education,” Darwish said.

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