Tips & Resources

An Arab Student’s Guide to Higher-Education Accreditation

This article is an updated companion to our resource that allows readers to search by country for internationally accredited institutions and programs.

The growing plethora of educational options—both online and in the real world—can be daunting, confusing and fraught with hidden dangers.

When deciding on an institution or program, it can pay to do a little homework.

Especially if a student hasn’t heard of the institution they are considering, they should be asking: Is it internationally accredited?

Rankings of universities are a popular way for some students to determine which institutions they should to apply to. But rankings are heavily weighted toward a university’s research. Accreditation is more focused on teaching and the resources available to students.

Doing some research up front on accreditation can help potential students and ensure their degrees will be accepted by employers or government agencies. In particular, attending an internationally accredited institution increases the chances that an undergraduate can go on to another international institution to get a master’s degree or a doctorate.

 The Search for Accredited Universities

In Arab countries, the licensing of private and public universities can be strict, but follow-up monitoring is generally weak. (See the related article “A Regional Survey: How Arab Countries Regulate Quality in Higher Education.”) So for many degrees, universities have come to rely on European and American agencies to review the quality of educational programs.

Accreditation is typically carried out by an independent, nongovernmental agency that sets its own standards. Some accrediting agencies specialize in an academic field, such as law or engineering. Still others give a stamp of approval on all of a university’s programs.

Accreditation is a formal decision indicating that an institution of higher education or a program (such as business or engineering) meets certain standards. Accreditation begins with self-evaluation by the applicant institution and proceeds on to external assessment by independent experts and a final decision based on international quality standards. Typically, independent experts who review an institution’s application for accreditation are also university professors or administrators and visit the applicant campus.

“By the time it’s all been evaluated, it takes about four to five years,” says Richard Pokrass, the communications director of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, in Philadelphia, which accredits some universities in the United States as well as the American University of Beirut, the American University of Cairo and Zayed University. “It’s not a matter of just filling out a form and paying a fee to be accredited,” adds Pokrass.

To be internationally accredited an institution must, at the very least, do the following:

  • Be fully operational with at least one class of students who have already graduated.
  • Comply with its country’s laws.
  • Have a well-documented strategic plan for the future.
  • Have self-assessment procedures.
  • Have core full-time faculty members.
  • Be legally permitted to grant degrees by their country’s relevant authority.

“Anybody lacking in any of those areas would not even get applicant status,” says Pokrass.

The Reputation of Higher-Education Accreditation

International accreditation has a mixed reputation in Arab countries. “I do not care about the international accreditation of the universities; I think it’s nothing more than universities’ boasting,” said Ali Abdul Hamid, a professor at Egypt’s National Research Center. “I prefer public universities as all are definitely operating with a license by the government which means its legal and qualified and that’s enough for me.” But Mona Ibrahim, a school teacher in the United Arab Emirates, said “Sure, I prefer international accredited universities to enroll my children at. The employment opportunities will be better for them after graduation which is the most important thing.”

Unfortunately, as with many other spheres in life, the university quality-control world includes fake accreditors, so students also need to know how to flag these poseurs.  (The Al-Fanar Media database of accredited institutions only includes valid accreditors.) Faked or weak accreditation is a growing problem in Arab countries. (See a related article “Faking Quality Control for Universities.”)

Agencies based in Europe and North America have the longest developed tradition of accreditation.

The United Kingdom’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education does not review foreign institutions but does check the quality of programs that British universities deliver outside the country. No centralized European accreditor exists, but the European Association for Quality Assurance in Higher Education seeks to foster cooperation among interested organizations. In the United States, the federal Department of Education doesn’t accredit universities, but it does recognize accreditation bodies, as does the U.S.-based Council for Higher Education Accreditation. Students should look for a U.S. higher-education institution accredited by an agency that is recognized by the Department of Education or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation.

Students always need to set accreditation in a wider context. “Accreditation, like ranking systems, is never completely objective and never tells the entire story of a program or institution,” wrote Chester D. Haskell, in a commentary for Al-Fanar Media. “Accreditation can be a form of consumer protection, but it does not indicate whether a particular program or institution is right for an individual.”

Tarek Abd El-Galil contributed to this article.


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