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Quality Assurance Perspectives In Higher Education In Oman … Can They Lead To Structuring An Effective Higher Education System?

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The current paper examines the wisdom of quality assurance move in Oman’s higher education system when many of the conditions necessary for its success are not present. There is growing interest in the quality of higher education in Oman; now that the structure of the system of Higher Education has been established with more than fifty institutions offering programmes to approximately forty thousand students, the Sultanate is turning its attention to the quality of the system in the context of the challenges of a globalised world with its rapidly accelerating knowledge economy based on information technologies. Considering the higher education endeavours in Oman, there is no evidence of a uniform mode of quality assurance and accreditation for all the programmes being offered throughout the country. The current paper attempts to critically evaluate the Quality Assurance implications of the Quality Plan designed by Oman Higher Education authorities with particular reference to the two forms of programme approval: accreditation of local degrees and recognition of foreign-accredited degrees offered in the country. There seems a dilution of the term Quality norms with reference to the programmes offered by local private higher education providers and foreign universities in the country and it will be of interest to know where balance in uniformity lies in accrediting programmes and institutions offering higher education in the country. The objective of the paper is to examine and highlight as to whether the codes for accreditation and quality assurance can lead to enhanced educational standards in Oman on par with developed countries.

A Brief History of Higher Education in Oman

Prior to 1970 there was no formal higher education in Oman. During this time, insufficient, inadequate or inaccessible educational programmes led to a significant sector of Omani population remaining illiterate or undereducated. The 1970s and 1980s were marked by the development of government run colleges, primarily offering vocational (up to certificate level) and technical (up to undergraduate diploma level) programmes. These mainly focused on the national priorities of health and teaching. The colleges continue today, and the offerings have expanded to include computer and information technology, engineering and business courses, as well as a small number of other subjects. A major development occurred in 1986 with the inauguration of Sultan Qaboos University (SQU), a comprehensive university located just outside the capital region of Muscat. Today, SQU is the major higher education institution in Oman with over 10,000 students and seven Colleges (Agriculture, Arts, Commerce and Economics, Education, Engineering, Medicine and Science). If offers programmes up to masters level, and is looking to offer doctoral programmes in the near future. Nonetheless, SQU on its own could not accommodate the growing demand for higher education. In the mid 1990s, a major strategic shift was implemented. Mindful that it did not have the capacity or capability to develop and deliver sufficient higher education opportunities to meet the needs of a youthful and growing population, Oman started importing higher education in earnest. The principal delivery mechanism was to establish privately owned local colleges and universities, offering imported diploma and degree programmes from credible higher education providers in such countries as the United Kingdom, Scotland, the United States, Australia and New Zealand. One of the consequences is that Oman imported not only a diverse range of educational opportunities, but also a diverse range of quality assurance systems, including wide variances in standards, data, approval mechanisms, transnational quality assurance mechanisms and transparency. This has made any national strategising extremely difficult.

Oman is now entering a new phase: the establishment of a comprehensive system of quality assurance and quality enhancement. This is an attempt, through improved quality management, to consolidate significant gains in the growth of the higher education sector. Oman’s higher education sector now has 23 private providers of higher education programmes (including four private universities); over two dozen public colleges (of various forms) and the public SQU. In Omani parlance they are all described as higher education although it is evident that this does not stand up to most international definitions.

The New National System

The new system being proposed for Oman is set out in a draft National Quality Plan which was approved for consultation with the higher education sector. The key elements include development of internationally benchmarked standards for institutional and programme approvals, and a consolidated set of licensing and accreditation processes (including an alternative route of �programme recognition’ for those programmes already accredited in overseas jurisdictions and subject to appropriate transnational quality assurance processes). Within a matter of years, it is expected that all higher education providers must be duly licensed (or provisionally accredited) by the Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) and subsequently accredited as competent providers by the Oman Accreditation Council (OAC). Similarly, all higher education programmes must be licensed (or provisionally accredited) by the MoHE prior to first intake, and subsequently accredited by the OAC. A system of formative evaluations, in the form of external quality audits, will be introduced prior to the summative assessment approach of institutional accreditation.

The introduction of such a system requires attention to processes and culture. With this in mind, the draft National Quality Plan has been based on a number of guiding principles, which serve as a checklist for whether each objective and its supporting strategies are appropriate for Oman. One of these guiding principles is Sustainable Omanisation and states that: “implementation of the quality management system must, in time, be sustainable within Oman and manageable independently from other countries. This will require Omani ownership of the system, and building the capacity and capability of the people in terms of quality awareness, standards, processes and skills.” This guiding principle, in particular, underpins the two strategies which forms the primary emphasis of this paper:

• Are the universities, institutions and networks that deliver cross-border courses or programmes registered, licensed or recognized by the sending and receiving countries?

• How do regulators assure the



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