Bahrain’s investment in its higher education sector is paying off with its improved quality of programmes, but still faces challenges in setting itself apart from others in the region.
Much like working towards preserving its centuries-old pearl industry in recent years, Bahrain has been making significant strides in its higher education sector, both in terms of growth and quality. With recent initiatives in the government and private sector, Bahrain aims to have a higher education ecosystem that will uniquely cater to the needs of a wide range of students from the Gulf Cooperation Council and beyond.
Some of them include enacting legislations and regulations that regulate higher education and scientific research.
New initiatives to boost the sector
“Legislations were issued in March 2023 to regulate private higher education institutions (HEIs) and provide them with higher levels of governance and autonomy,” says H.E. Dr Mohammed bin Mubarak Juma, Minister of Education, Chairperson of the Board of Trustees of the Higher Education Council (HEC), Bahrain.
The council approved a number of new academic programmes in fast-growing fields such as artificial intelligence, cybersecurity, big data, environmental engineering, nutrition and digital marketing.
To further capitalise on the quality of the HEIs and academic programmes and safeguard accountability, the General Framework of Higher Education Institutional Review 2023 was developed by the Education & Training Quality Authority (BQA) and the HEC. The framework helps in granting institutional accreditation to universities.
“To enhance internationalisation, student exchange and share academic expertise, more international partnerships between institutions in Bahrain and other countries have been encouraged by HEC during the second half of 2023,” adds H.E. Dr Juma.
International education is one of the key areas of investment opportunities to promote Bahrain as a strategic location for international education.
According to Dr Diana Abdulkarim Al Jahromi, Secretary General of the HEC, encouraging student exchange programmes at the undergraduate and graduate levels, cooperation in the field of organising conferences and events on topics of common interest in higher education and scientific research and encouraging the establishment of joint student activities and exchange (cultural, sports, social, scientific) will contribute to attracting more students to study in Bahrain.
The COVID-19 pandemic was a catalyst for universities incorporating technology into the country’s educational systems and has meant that more options are available for all higher education providers.
“These not only cover delivery of content but collaboration in areas such as research and funding. This is a big step for universities and creates multiple local, regional and international opportunities,” says Professor Yusra Mouzughi, President, Royal University for Women, Bahrain.
According to Cameron Mirza, former Head of Strategy at the University of Bahrain, there’s been a big expansion of the private universities over the last decade. “We have seen new universities open, such as the British University of Bahrain and the American University of Bahrain in the last five years,” he says.
Challenges to be addressed
Highlighting some of the challenges, H.E. Dr Juma says reviewing the current curricula, study design, routes and admission policies in light of the different modes of learning is key.
“These challenges have had a significant impact on the necessity of having the HEIs and labour market representatives work together towards raising the level of performance of the sector and providing different routes and more flexible pathways,” he adds.
According to Mirza, the opportunities really are about “creating more dynamic programmes that are linked with building skills and competencies rather than just academic degrees”.
Many universities in Bahrain are now going with dual awards. A good example is the British University of Bahrain that offers a Salford University degree. “This is a big step forward because students know they are getting a qualification that has international value,” says Mirza.
Fundamentally, many universities are having to re-invent themselves. “The changing requirements from employers means that universities have to respond to this in a different way. Industry is ultimately seeking skills and competencies rather than theory and knowledge. Our systems need to learn to reflect this more fully,” adds Professor Mouzughi.
As the sector matures, a focus on specific areas or disciplines where Bahrain can become recognised as the leader would enable it to be set apart from the other providers. “This is already starting to take shape and areas such as internationally recognised medical education have become synonymous with Bahrain. Further, specific developments and expertise in the research field will set the country apart,” says Professor Mouzughi.
There has also been a growth in the number of international students. For example, the Royal College of Surgeons attracts students from as far as Canada. “The University of Bahrain, being the national university, regularly attracts students that want to come from the Gulf. And now what we’re seeing is students coming from further afield such as Egypt and Malaysia,” says Mirza.
Reforms that will pave the way going forward
There needs to be greater integration in terms of policies, particularly academic policies. Students coming to study in Bahrain are more drawn towards gaining work experience or internships and policies need to be enabling students to spend longer time in the industry.
There also needs to be more emphasis around research. It is important for universities in the country to maintain their quality and accreditation.
The Bahrain government, regulators and quality assurance agencies have been proactive in ensuring that all necessary steps are taken to respond to any changes. Recently, a set of new by-laws were issued by the HEC giving HEIs more freedom and flexibility in how they operate.
Bahrain continues to position itself as a quality provider of higher education in the region. “Efforts are in place to widen the pool of international students,” adds Professor Mouzughi.
Collaboration will be key to improved student mobility and research. “Research is an important area of growth but given the relatively small size of the Bahraini market, collaborative research projects will ensure that all institutions benefit and that their efforts are more efficient,” she says.
Strategic engagement in higher education internationalisation is critical for Bahrain in leveraging strong global partnerships to assist in advancing the quality and diversity of education at a faster pace, as per the Higher Education Strategy 2030.
“Moving towards more partnerships with international educational institutions that have high international rankings, which can help develop the higher education sector in Bahrain, by encouraging those universities to open branches in the country, or by hosting some of their academic programmes can go a long way in achieving internationalisation,” says Dr Al Jahromi.