Transnational higher education and quality: Oman’s experience and the concept of policy borrowing
Al Shanfari, Samya Awadh
Globalization has had a well-documented impact on higher education (e.g. Giddens, 1990; Ginkle, 2003; Altbach and Knight, 2007). The attendant massive expansion of higher education both globally and at national level has brought with it increasing concerns regarding quality. One context within which such concerns are evident is that of Transnational Higher Education (TNHE). TNHE, also known as cross-border education, mainly refers to education that is provided to students residing in a country other than the one where the awarding institution is located (UNESCO/Council of Europe, 2001). TNHE takes various forms and serves multiple objectives but the multidimensional phenomenon can be described as an example of Policy Borrowing (Phillips and Ochs, 2003). Oman is a country whose modern educational system was established very recently (1970) and is still expanding rapidly. As elsewhere in the ‘developing world’, the Omani government has met the increasing demand for higher education in large part by encouraging private higher education provision. However, this has been associated with an increasing desire to build capacity and assure quality of provision. In response, the Omani Ministry of Higher Education turned to TNHE for solutions: private sector providers in Oman have been required to enter academic partnerships with internationally recognized universities. In this research, I investigate the rationales, approaches and perceptions of this process from a receiver country perspective and address the implications. Most published research on TNHE focuses on providers’ perspectives and activities, and the impact of TNHE has only been studied in a small number of generally sizeable countries. However, the Gulf States, especially Oman, have not received the same attention, mainly due to the fact that TNHE is a recent phenomenon in this part of the world. Research to date in Oman thus remains very limited (Ameen, Chapman and Al Barawani, 2010; Al Barawani, Ameen and Chapman, 2011). The main objective of the research at the centre of this Thesis was therefore to explore the expectations, experiences and conclusions of a sample of staff of three private sector universities in Oman regarding TNHE, within which their university was/is active. The topic is investigated in the context of national policy and institutional TNHE strategy. Data were generated through documentary analysis and qualitative interviews. In-depth face-to-face interviews were conducted in three stages: Stage one: desk research and pilot study to set the direction for the research (8 participants) Stage two: interviews carried out over multiple visits to the three private universities selected as the cases (29 participants) Stage three: interviews with policy- and decision-makers (6 participants), to help in the process of reviewing and contextualizing the data from Stage 2. Data analysis revealed variation from the existing literature on this topic when it comes to defining the concept of affiliation, which is central to the approach taken in Oman to TNHE, as well as inconsistency across the three case universities, highlighting the complex dynamic that exists, with hugely varied expectations, numerous rationales and motivations and varying experiences being reported. Findings also reveal that, as reported by the majority of interviewees, the key rationales for engagement with TNHE are building capacity and assuring quality, alongside other rationales such as generating revenue and increasing student recruitment, which form the main driving force on the part of receiver institutions. This is consistent with the overall national imperative of increasing the number of HE places available for Oman’s young people, although the focus on volume is seen by the informants in the institutions as falling short in terms of capacity building and the enhancement of quality. Many interviewees voiced concerns that foreign partners’ approaches do not necessarily contribute to capacity building and may remain limited in scope, impacting on the quality of teaching and learning in ways that are not necessarily positive. Indeed, concerns were reported that the original overarching educational rationales of improving quality and capacity building may have been displaced by a more instrumental emphasis, for example on income generation. Some informants were firmly in favour of developing indigenized systems and reducing reliance on foreign partners. This point is taken up in a concluding discussion of the implications of the findings for Omani universities currently dependent on Transnational Higher Education, and the implications of this dependency for the Omani higher education system as a whole.