The rapidly rising level of research activity in the Omani education sector brings a number of challenges, one of the most salient being how best to monitor the increasing array of research programmes being introduced by the sultanate’s Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). An oversight capability of this nature is key to developing a cogent national research effort that addresses the needs of local industry and the goals established by the Vision 2030 strategy. To some extent this task is carried out by The Research Council (TRC), a government body established in 2005 to promote and coordinate research activity in the country. Through its various programmes – the Open Research Grant or Research Centre programme, for example – it acts as the focal point of research activity in the sultanate and provides the bulk of the funding that is directed towards it. However, as programmes increase in number and sophistication, the private sector and other external sources are playing an increasing role in research funding, and this trend means that TRC, with its focus on government-funded research, may not be in a position to provide the level of oversight required.
By The Numbers
An analysis of the research activities of Sultan Qaboos University (SQU), the nation’s flagship university illustrates the significant role the private sector is now playing in research activity. In 2010, the most recent year for which the Deanship of Research has released detailed data, TRC grants accounted for just over half (51.9%) of a research funding total of OR1.7m ($4.4m). This figure was divided across nine projects in agriculture, oceanography, renewable energy, digital media, human genetics and medical research, with the largest single grant of OR152,900 ($398,465) directed at a solar and wind energy project undertaken by the College of Engineering. SQU’s consultancy-based research represented the second-largest source of funding for the university that year, accounting for 27.2% of total funding. It was also responsible for underwriting 31 projects and covering a range of more specialised subjects in which SQU acted as a consultant for an external organisation.
The research undertaken as a result of consultancy agreements included subjects central to the development of some of Oman’s most important economic sectors, such as microbial enhanced oil recovery and a project examining the under-frequency load shedding settings for the Occidental Block 9 concession; the largest consultancy-funded project was research into monodiameter expandable solutions undertaken by the College of Engineering. Finally, around 21% of the year’s funding total originated from within SQU, coming from its OR500,000 ($1.3m) research budget, the Joint Grant Programme, by which the university matches funds provided by other institutions, or His Majesty’s Trust Fund Grants. In 2010 internal funding grants such as these were more numerous than TRC grants and consultancy-funded projects combined, totalling 71, but generally were smaller in value and with a less pronounced focus on science and engineering.
The fact that nearly a third of SQU’s research funding total is derived from its consultancy activity holds some interesting implications regarding oversight. As the sultanate’s tertiary education institutions grow in size, number and sophistication, private sector funding will play an increasing part in the nation’s funding mix. Some of the larger institutions outside SQU’s campus are already examining funding options beyond TRC’s programme, and have established committees to coordinate the search for external investment in their research activity (see Overview). Monitoring Oman’s increasingly diverse research arena, therefore, is becoming an ever more challenging undertaking.
Government education planners have a useful tool at their disposal in the form of the Oman Academic Accreditation Authority (OAAA). Established in 2001 by royal decree as the Oman Accreditation Council, the body is responsible for the external quality assurance and quality enhancement of Oman’s HEIs. Under its reporting structure, two aspects of research activity are addressed. First, the “Student Learning by Research Programmes” module applies to all programmes with a substantial research component. The “Staff Research and Consultancy” module is applied to all HEIs with a “research oriented mission”. “Quality assurance standards in Oman are some of the highest in the GCC,” said Dean Ahmed Hassan Al Bulushi of the Caledonian College of Engineering.
In defining its assessment criteria, the OAAA acknowledges that Oman’s research segment is still at an early stage of development, and that only a limited number of institutions will be liable to assessment according to the full scope of its research-focused modules. The question of research commercialisation, for example, is not immediately applicable to many of the sultanate’s HEIs, although the OAAA advises that all institutions engaged in research activity should at least “give an appropriate amount of consideration to preparing for the possibility of research output commercialisation.” However, the assessment and reporting structure it has put in place represents the most comprehensive supervision tool available to the government as it goes about planning the sultanate’s research effort at a national level.
By February 2012 the OAAA had put 26 HEIs through its quality audit process and published the results of 25 of them, as well as a concluding report. According to the findings, only five of the audited institutions were audited according to the OAAA’s module dealing with student research – reflecting the relatively small number of education providers that offer “learning by research” programmes.
The report notes that under the Requirements for Oman’s System of Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ORSQA), HEIs designated as universities or colleges are “expected to develop and invest in their research activity” as well as explore consultancy opportunities with local and regional industry and business. The OAAA audited only colleges with research funding schemes and links to Oman’s Research Council according to these criteria and awarded commendations to 16% of them. It also awarded eight HEIs with affirmations in the area of research planning and management, “in recognition of the fact that HEIs are beginning to take steps to implement a research culture.” The report concludes that in cases of development and investment, and planning and management most of the audited universities and colleges fell below ORSQA expectations.
The picture revealed by the OAAA’s findings is one of a young research sector that, despite its rapid development in recent years, is still led by a relatively small number of institutions. Current trends suggest that more education providers, including privately operated institutions, are pursuing more research opportunities (see Overview). However, the real value of the report lies in its demonstration of the OAAA’s ability to provide granular data concerning the entirety of Oman’s research activity. The oversight capability it provides will be of great interest to the government as it formulates Oman’s future research strategy.
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