In Arab countries, students’ decisions about enrolling in an academic program or university are often limited by high school grades and tuition costs, but many today are also taking something else into account: whether the institution or academic program is internationally accredited. (See Al-Fanar Media’s updated database of more than 750 internationally accredited universities and programs in the Arab world.)
An informal survey that included 400 male and female students from various Arab countries, conducted by Al-Fanar Media on the Internet, revealed that 77 percent of these students consider an institution’s accreditation status when it comes to selecting a university.
International accreditation is independent of the national standards set by ministries of education that institutions have to meet in the countries where they operate. International accreditation is usually done by an independent, nongovernmental agency that sets its own standards. (See the related articles “A Student’s Primer on Accreditation” and “An Arab Student’s Guide to Higher-Education Accreditation.”)
For students, attending an internationally accredited institution can be important if they plan to continue their education overseas.
“Accreditation guarantees quality in education and confidence in academic institutions’ services and outputs,” said Fatima Al-Falah, an assistant professor of educational psychology and director of the Office of Quality Assurance and Performance Evaluation at the University of Benghazi, in Libya.
Obtaining international accreditation is a rigorous process, she said. It begins “with self-assessment by the institution that submitted the application, then an external evaluation by independent experts, and a final decision based on internationally accepted quality evaluation criteria.”
Al-Falah believes that for students embarking on a long-term educational or career path, there may be no more significant decision than choosing an institution or a program that grants a reputable and accredited diploma.
“Accreditation guarantees quality in education and confidence in academic institutions’ services and outputs.”Fatima Al-Falah
An assistant professor of educational psychology at the University of Benghazi
She said, “When deciding whether a student will apply to a particular institution or program, it is necessary to search for the quality of the university, institution, or program that grants a certain degree, certificate, or job opportunity,” and to know that its credentials “will be accepted by employers, government sectors, or universities if the student wishes to apply for post-graduate studies.”
A Different Reality for Some
While a large majority of the students Al-Fanar Media surveyed saw accreditation as important, 16 percent said they did not take accreditation into account when choosing an academic program or a university, and about 7 percent said they did not understand the concept.
For some, other considerations were more important.
Malih Abdul-Ghani, a fourth-year pharmacy student at the University of Science and Technology, a private institution in the Yemeni city of Taizz, did not know whether his university was accredited or not. He explained that this issue does not make a difference to many students in Yemen now because of the current situation in a country devastated by more than six years of conflict. It would be difficult for him to leave Yemen to work or to search for opportunities abroad, he said, and scholarships are granted to students of public universities only.
“Students or parents do not know much about international accreditation of universities,” Abdul-Ghani said, and it is not a consideration in university enrollment decisions. “What matters is your ability to have the money to pay the tuition fees, which is a great burden for all of us, especially in the conditions in which we live here.” (See a related article, “Yemen’s War Reaches Into Public-University Classrooms.”)
Mahmoud Abdel-Wahab, a student at the Faculty of Commerce, English Department, of Egypt’s Assiut University, shares Abdel-Ghani’s doubts about the relative importance of international accreditation.
“Accreditation is important,” Abdel-Wahab said, “but not in a big way. I don’t think that accreditation is enough to guarantee a job opportunity. In Egypt, we are governed by other factors such as grade (assessment) and personal relationships.”
Searching for an accredited university was not a priority for Abdel-Wahab. Instead, his aim was to search for a program providing skills required by the labor market. “My father is an accountant and I wish to work for and investment bank, so I studied accounting in English,” he said.
Opening Up Prospects
Most of the organizations that grant international accreditation are based in the United States or Europe. Some evaluate institutions as a whole, and others accredit specific programs, such as business administration or engineering.
Many of the students in Al-Fanar Media’s survey said obtaining a degree from an internationally accredited program or institution was important to them because it would open up future prospects. Forty-seven percent said that accreditation would make it easier for them to complete graduate studies abroad, and 42 percent said it would give them greater opportunities in the labor market.
Wejdan El-Hassani, a fourth-year student at the Higher Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology at the University of Sousse, in Tunisia, said, “My choice of major was based on the fact that my degree was recognized locally and internationally, in addition to the extent to which the skills I learned matched with the labor market. Therefore, I chose this institute to study there.”
“My choice of major was based on the fact that my degree was recognized locally and internationally.”Wejdan El-Hassani
A student at the Higher Institute of Applied Sciences and Technology at the University of Sousse, in Tunisia
Muslim Akhamis, a fourth-year student at the Faculty of Public Administration at the University of Jordan, also believes in the importance of searching for an internationally accredited major that is suitable for the needs of the labor market, as it provides a lot in terms of studying abroad or securing a good career.
Accreditation status was not a factor in his own decision, he said, because “I was not looking for that at the time, my options were limited. If I could go back in time, however, I would choose a major based on new grounds,” he said.
Khamis is a member of Jordan’s Eye on the Future initiative, which is concerned with helping students choose a university major. “Today I always advise students to search for their major through accredited programs,” he said. (See a related article, “Programs Help High School Students Find the Right Academic Path.”)
Still, students need to place accreditation in a broader context, higher-education experts say.
“Accreditation, like rating systems, can never be completely objective and never tell the full story of a program or institution,” Chester D. Haskell, a university leader and higher-education consultant, wrote in a commentary for Al-Fanar Media. Accreditation “can be a form of consumer protection,” he added, “but it does not indicate whether a particular program or institution is appropriate for a particular individual.” (See a related article, “Measuring Quality in Higher Education Is a Tricky Proposition.”)
Quality Assurance Opportunity
In Arab countries, private and public universities have to meet strict, locally set criteria to obtain a license to operate. How often authorities follow up on the quality of their work subsequently varies from country to country. (See a related article, “A Regional Survey: How Arab Countries Regulate Quality in Higher Education.”)
”If I could go back in time, however, I would choose a major based on new grounds.”Muslim Khamis
A fourth-year student at the Faculty of Public Administration at the University of Jordan
Hence, seeking accreditation from an independent, international organization is an important way in which universities can participate in periodic reviews of the quality of their educational programs.
Unlike popular rankings of universities, the importance of accreditation lies in the process, not in the outcome. It allows the institution, in the self-assessment stage first, to evaluate its own performance and check the suitability of the initiatives and projects it undertakes with its overall objectives and higher values.
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Another benefit of the accreditation path is that it pushes the university or program to evaluate its performance in light of international standards, and then to mobilize its energies to work on improving its weaknesses and ensuring its continuous development.
Mohamed Ghazala, director of the cinematic arts program at Effat University, in Jeddah, points out that national accreditation is a basic requirement at Saudi universities, and that the kingdom also supports universities’ efforts to obtain accreditation at the international level.
“Working at an accredited university elevates the university professor’s skills,” Ghazala said. It motivates professors to work “according to a different style that takes into account the measurement of the results of teaching for graduates,” the return of the teaching method to the student, and the effectiveness of teaching methods in achieving the required standards, as opposed to traditional methods that “rely on a single channel from student to professor.”
Saudi universities are working to motivate foreign and Saudi students to study in the kingdom, Ghazala said, which increases institutions’ interest in raising the level of educational equality to comply with international standards. Obtaining recognition from an international accreditor is one way of reaching that goal.
“Accreditation is an essential means of ensuring continuity of quality,” Ghazala said.