Oman: Taking education higher

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Oman’s higher education system is set to be bolstered by a programme that will fine-tune its services to better meet the needs of both students and the national economy, while also bringing the system in line with international standards.

Reforms have already been made, progress that was noted by the UN in its most recent Human Development Index, released in November last year. That report, entitled “The real wealth of nations: Pathways to human development”, showed that in the past 40 years Oman had made the greatest progress of any of the 135 countries in the non-income section of the index.

The overall progress was largely thanks to the state’s investment in education, which has seen the number of schools rise from just three in 1970 to more than 1000, as well as the founding of the state-funded Sultan Qaboos University, technical colleges and numerous private centres of higher learning. Figures released by the government late last year show that more than $40bn has been pumped into the education system since 1970 – the year Sultan Qaboos bin Said Al Said came to the throne – as Oman sought to fast track itself into becoming a modern state and bring its education system up to international standards.

That process took another step forward on May 15, with the Oman Academic Accreditation Authority (OAAA) announcing it would launch an institutional standards review and revision project aimed at further refining the education system to help it meet the challenges of a changing world. As one of the state agencies tasked with helping to develop the country’s higher education sector through auditing programmes and setting academic standards, the OAAA has worked closely with the Ministry of Higher Education to provide quality control for the country’s universities and colleges.

According to Hamed Al Dhahab, the acting chairman of the OAAA, the best strategy for Oman’s young and rapidly developing higher education sector to achieve the goals set for it is to put in place a developmental pathway to international standards.

“Consideration of quality assurance practices around the world showed that a combination of institutional quality audits, followed several years later by standards-based assessment, is the most appropriate method for providing this pathway,” Al Dhahab wrote in a speech delivered on his behalf at the launch of the review and revision project.

It is vital that Oman have a set of institutional standards that recognises the diversity of the higher education sector in Oman, that are in context, and are internationally benchmarked, he wrote.

“We need to ensure that we develop institutional standards which go beyond minimum requirements and support higher education institutions to pursue excellence,” he said.

US-based education consultancy Voorhees Group will be working with Omani officials and agencies on the project, which will involve a revision of the institutional standards of the Requirements for Oman’s System of Quality Assurance (ROSQA) in higher education. Introduced in 2004, the ROSQA sets out the standards for educational institutions; provides guidelines on how they should be assessed, giving benchmarks for performance and accreditation processes; and serves as a roadmap for institutions developing their own internal planning and quality assurance arrangements.

The OAAA will soon have at least one new institution to advise and assess, with plans under way to expand the higher education system. In early May, Sultan Qaboos issued a royal directive authorising the establishment of a new state university that will focus on a science-based curriculum. Speaking at a meeting of the cabinet on May 1, the Sultan said it was important to develop the education sector, saying it was central to meeting “the aspirations of this country towards progress”.

The Sultan also directed the cabinet to boost vocational training schemes and expand the network of colleges of technology, a move he said was aimed at opening up “new horizons for Omanis to join the workforce that will have a constructive impact on them and will reflect positively on their standards of living”.

Though it will take time to put in place all the pieces needed for a new university, and indeed broaden the base of technical institutes across the country, the directives issued at the beginning of May will set in motion a process that will in time allow more Omanis to progress from secondary to higher education.

With the government looking to reduce the numbers of expatriate workers in the economy, a move aimed at improving the employment opportunities for locals, an expanded education system will not only satisfy young Omanis’ hunger for learning but help meet the economy’s needs for a trained and skilled workforce.

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