Distance education that allows adults with families and jobs to study in the evenings and on weekends has revolutionized education in many parts of the world. But not in Bahrain.
A 2010 government decree blocks recognition of degrees earned through virtually all forms of distance education–programs run by institutions outside the country and aimed chiefly at working adults. Bahraini students’ only options are usually to study during the working week at the more than 20 higher-education institutions based in the country. Although some local private universities offer evening programs, they cost up to $4,000 per semester, far higher than the cost of foreign institutions.
Saeed Reda is a 28-year-old Bahraini citizen working in a private company in Manama, Bahrain. He is married and supports a family of five. He came from a low-income family that could not afford to pay for university for him and so he has been working since leaving high school.
He says he still feels bitter about his failure to pursue higher education, especially when he sees that his former classmates have become engineers and teachers. He wants to correct his past mistakes but is blocked by the government decree, and can’t afford to leave his job.
“I tried to enroll at Cairo University Open Education,” he added, “but the Bahraini ministry told me that it would not approve my certificate, which meant that I would spend a lot of money in vain.”
Bahrain is certainly not the only Arab country where recognition of continuing education or online education is limited. Egyptian students say that even though degrees they have earned through distance education might qualify them to study for a master’s degree or a doctorate in the United States or the United Kingdom, Egyptian employers prefer degrees earned at standard, daytime university programs.
The 2010 resolution issued by the Ministry of Education in Bahrain ended recognition of all bachelor of science or art degrees or any other diplomas granted by foreign education institutions through online education, joint degrees, or branch campuses.
The Open Arab University in Bahrain, part of the wider Open University network, offered two specialties in English that the government accredited but that many students considered expensive. Before this ministerial resolution, Bahrainis could also enroll in distance education at Egyptian universities such as Cairo and Ain Shams Universities, at a reasonable cost. Those two universities allowed students to take exams at their headquarters in Cairo or at one of their branches, such as Qatar and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, to make it easier for students who could not travel to Egypt.
The public relations department at the Ministry of Education in Isa Town emphasized that the 2010 resolution remains in place. The department said the National Committee affiliated to the ministry refuses to approve certificates granted by “irregular” educational systems because of their “poor educational outcome.”
In 2013, the ministry did not approve of the certificates of some students, who had graduated from Egyptian universities, although it had clearly stated that it would approve students’ certificates if they had participated in open education before the resolution. The case was discussed several times in parliament and was even taken to court.
The ministry said such programs had inadequate educational supervision and did not comply with the Bahraini system, which requires students to sit for exams in the headquarters of the degree-granting institutions.
The ministry said that widespread cheating occurs in some of the universities’ open education centers, and accused them of being just for profit.
In some visits to testing centers, an Al-Fanar Media correspondent did not observe mass cheating. Administrators at one center, Ibn Khaldon International School in Arqa in Riyadh, emphasized that their exams were held every semester under the supervision of Mohammad Al-Toukhy, a vice president, and Ahmed Galal, director of the Open Education Center, and two other professors.
The 80 students who sat for a recent exam came from many different countries. Male and female students sat in two different halls, according to Saudi tradition, and female supervisors monitored girls.
This correspondent observed strict supervision by the examination monitors and university professors. When students were caught cheating, the supervisors said, the students’ exams were cancelled immediately and reported as invalid. Supervisors did not allow students to use bathrooms or mobile phones during the exams.
A review of last year’s students’ grades revealed that many students don’t pass their courses, challenging the ministry’s allegation of lenience. Some students, however, after they received their textbooks, registered, and paid their fees, said they did not find as many lessons as they would like on the Internet. The center supervisors said that the students are issued university identification cards and, if they can make it to Cairo, can attend lectures and go to the library. Many of the students who fail their courses do so because of the time spent at their jobs, supervisors said, although they are working to lower the failure rate.
The first semester tuition fees in Ain Shams University Center in Riyadh are 4,000 riyals for Egyptian students, equivalent to about $1,000. The fees for non-Egyptians are 7000 riyals or $1,860. The university helps foreign students rent apartments close to the Saudi testing center, and the fees are reduced if the students sit for the exam in Egypt.
By comparison, Bahraini private universities’ fees amount to 2,000 dinars or $5,300 per semester. Bahraini private universities, then, are almost three times more expensive than Egyptian ones. Private university fees are more than a fifth of the average annual income in Bahrain, which is 9,000 dinars or $24,153 in 2013, according to a recent report issued by the Arab Investment and Export Credit Guarantee Corporation.
Ahmed, an exam taker at Ain Shams who preferred not to mention his family name, said he studies the same books taught to students of Bahraini universities, but he had to depend on himself to study and revise lessons without attending daily lectures.
Saudi Arabia, like other Gulf countries, does not recognize distance education, so graduates of those programs cannot get government jobs that require advanced degrees although the distance degrees may help graduates with private companies. But in Bahrain, graduates of distance-education programs cannot use their degrees to get either government or private-sector jobs.
In Al-Jaffir in Manama, a man wearing a black suit was registering as a job seeker at a recruitment agency. After a quick review of his documents, the recruiter told the man, who seemed to be prepared for the bad news, that though he held a university degree, they would register his name as a high school graduate because he had obtained his degree through a distance-education program at a European university. After a short argument, the man agreed and left the building.
Experts say perhaps education ministries who don’t trust the quality of education at programs for working adults could set up testing centers of their own to verify what these students have learned or even set up their own programs. In the meantime, many parents and older workers are shut out from the path to personal and professional improvement that education can offer.