(See a related Al-Fanar Media list of Internationally Accredited Schools and Institutions.)
Roughly forty miles from the bustling, historic city of Fez, a public university in a Moroccan mountain range is seeking American accreditation.
With its business school, language center and computer science program already accredited by agencies overseas, Al Akhawayn University, which teaches in English, is pursing an international stamp of approval for the whole institution.
“Why do we do this? It’s part of our quality-assurance process,” said Cherif Bel Fekih, executive director for development and communication at Morocco’s Al Akhawayn University. “It’s an opportunity to improve, change and adapt, and bring the programs to the required standards.”
Seeking to raise educational quality, enhance the value of offered degrees and claim prestige, a growing number of universities and programs across the Arab world are seeking accreditation from external agencies, largely in Europe or the United States. (See a related Al-Fanar Media list of Internationally Accredited Schools and Institutions.)
“There was a time in the past, perhaps, when accreditation was an option, a feather in the cap of a business school or a university,” said George Najjar, special advisor to the chief executive officer of the U.S.-based accreditor AACSB International—The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business. “I don’t believe this is the case anymore. It is now an imperative. It is a compelling necessity.”
Many academic institutions in the Middle East are coming of age, said Najjar, who is also the provost at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. And the realities of globalization and competitiveness have made it absolutely necessary for a school to build the ability to be accredited if it wants to be in good standing in the community of quality higher learning institutions, he said.
International accreditation, of course, is not the only game in town when it comes to measuring the quality of higher education. Some Arab countries have their ways of licensing universities and checking the standards of teaching and curriculum. The Arab Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education has been a leading organization in this effort.
At least one international organization has tried to capitalize on the craving for external recognition by offering a shortcut to the label “accreditation” that bears little resemblance to the real process that takes many years to achieve. The “International Accreditation Organization,” which has no physical address on its website, took money from some Arab institutions for an extremely superficial version of accreditation. (See related story: Faking Quality Control for Universities.) Administrators, parents and students need to beware of such organizations, experts say.
But the more thorough version of international approval is so sought-after that some institutions are built around the concept.
“Curiously, two of the more established American-style universities in the Gulf region were predesigned with accreditation in mind,” academics Neema Noori and Pia-Kristina Anderson wrote in an article published by the International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society in Feb. 2013. The American University of Sharjah and Zayed University were established with structures in place to facilitate accreditation, according to the article. The U.S.-based Middle States Commission on Higher Education now accredits both institutions.
Another accrediting agency is the Brussels-based European Quality Improvement System, which certifies business schools. The U.S.-based Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) is an example of an agency accrediting individual degree programs—ABET alone accredits more than 260 of them in the region.
About two-thirds of all programs certified by ABET outside the United States are in the Middle East and North Africa, according to Michael Milligan, executive director of the organization. Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates have the highest concentrations of ABET-accredited programs, he said.
“In many cases, these programs want to be recognized in some way as being equivalent in quality to the programs that exist in the U.S. and other places,” Milligan said.
On the institutional level, most—if not all—of the universities that sought accreditation from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education did so for the prestige, said Richard Pokrass, communications director at the organization.
“They knew that the Commission’s accreditation standards are rigorous and felt that if they could meet our standards it would be a good reflection on their institutions,” Pokrass said in an email. “That in turn would enable them to recruit students with evidence that their programs are rigorous and effective.”
Accreditation takes several years and involves self-assessment as well as site visits and evaluations by the accrediting agencies. Institutions must show that they function with clear strategies and educational objectives, that they are financially stable and that they maintain organizational structures to fulfill their purposes, among other requirements.
Marking a milestone for the region, the American University in Cairo’s School of Business recently received what is known as “Triple Crown” accreditation by agencies in Europe, the U.S. and the U.K.—a rare status.
By going through accreditation, “the very positive thing is that… you get everyone aligned toward the same objective, which is not very easy,” said Karim Seghir, dean of the business school.
AACSB International, one of the business school’s accreditors, sees growing interest for accreditation in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. “You can go on and on to Iraq, Qatar, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Nigeria and Kenya,” said Najjar, the CEO of the organization. “These are all countries where I know you have business schools that are either in the pipeline or getting ready to get into the pipeline of ACCSB accreditation.”
Some institutions will be turned down for accreditation. When it comes to MBA programs, “there are actually very few that meet our standards,” said Mark Stoddard, director of operations at the London-based Association of MBAs. “For us, the MBA is purely a post-experience degree,” Stoddard said. “In the Middle Eastern section, a good number of students come to an MBA program without prior work experience, so that would automatically exclude those schools from accreditation by us.”
For others, challenges relate to the contexts in which universities operate.
As turmoil sweeps across the region, some business schools are struggling to show accreditors that the learning experiences they offer are international—as agencies expect. “By international I mean that you have international students, international faculty, international content,” said the American University in Cairo’s Seghir. “The main challenge in the region, given the political and economic developments over the past few years, is to attract international students.”
While it is not the case for the American university, some might also struggle to meet standards in research, he said. Research requires faculty members’ time and external grants. “The problem is that many business schools in the Arab region are mainly teaching institutions,” he says.
Steve Parscale, director of accreditation at the U.S.-based Accreditation Council for Business Schools and Programs, said it could be difficult for some to meet accreditation criteria that may be culturally divergent. “It’s common for colleges and universities to provide throughout the students’ education what we would consider general education, things on math, history, English,” he said. “You find in many Arab countries, and many in the Middle East, that they assume that education was completed in the high schools and they don’t carry too much of that forward to the university level.” Plus, some religious institutions that operate in buildings owned by churches or mosques can run afoul of accreditation requirements that universities own their own buildings.
Accreditation can also be slowed—or blocked—by the accreditation agencies themselves, and their willingness to do site visits.
In 2009, the Middle State Commission on Higher Education halted its International Pilot Project—which previously had led to accreditation of several institutions in the region – primarily because of the strain it placed on commission staff, Pokrass said.
From the viewpoint of Arab universities, accreditors can be excessively nervous about travel to the Arab region, not noticing the safety differences between countries. After the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, a U.S.-based group halted its accreditation of Al Akhawayn University, Bel Fekih said. “I don’t know what they thought but they simply said: ‘We can’t continue. It’s a liability for us. We can’t take the risk of sending people there.”
Yet with no accrediting body at home—and a desire to be recognized overseas—the university is once again pursuing international accreditation.
“When you seek international accreditation you are benchmarking against the rest of the world and that gives you international recognition,” Bel Fekih said.