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Bahrain’s tertiary education reform : a step towards sustainable economic development

Les réformes de l'enseignement supérieur au Bahrein : vers un développement économique durable
Magdalena Karolak
p. 163-181


À l’instar des pays du Conseil de coopération du Golfe, le Bahreïn connait un développement rapide de son secteur universitaire depuis la décennie 2000 : 12 universités privées y furent crées, dans un pays comptant près d’un million d’habitants. Quelques unes de ces institutions sont locales, alors que d’autres sont affiliées à des universités étrangères. Le contraste est important au regard de la décennie précédente, pendant laquelle seulement trois universités publiques constituaient l’enseignement supérieur bahreïni. Les raisons de cette expansion incluent la croissance de la population locale et expatriée, la transition planifiée d’une économie rentière à une économie du savoir, ainsi que l’entrée croissante des femmes sur le marché du travail. Le développement universitaire est un des moyens centraux mobilisés pour sécuriser ces développements économiques et sociaux. Cet article examine les différentes mesures prises au Bahreïn pour encadrer et assurer la qualité de ces institutions éducatives transnationales et locales.

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1The beginning of the 21st century marked a turning point in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries as it brought awareness that major social and economic reforms are a must to avoid future economic decline (Shochat, 2008: 6). So far the GCC economies have relied heavily on oil profits; the rentier economic model (Beblawi & Luciani, 1987) has worked with oil surplus distributed among citizens in form of free services and subsidies (Hertog, 2010: 4). However the current demographic constraints linked to a rapid population growth call for a holistic strategy to transform the GCC economies (The Economist, 2009: 5). As in the near future the oil wealth will have to be shared among a larger population, there will be considerable pressure on states' budgets to maintain the same level of social welfare (Gause, 1997: 67). These demographic considerations are combined with a long-term need for economic diversification and gradual shift away from oil dependency (World Bank, 2004: 42).

2The drive towards a greater sustainability requires substantial economic contributions of the society. However, within a rentier context, majority of citizens display "low societal capacities" (Hertog, 2010: 5), which translate into low productivity and high expectations from state resources. Moreover, population of the GCC presents specific characteristics compared to the rest of the world. More than 40% of the region's population is under 15 years old (de Boer & Turner, 2007: 10). As these youths enter the labor market, the GCC national workforce is expected to increase by 30% in 2020 (Shediac & Samman, 2010: 2). In the past, national workers would be easily absorbed in the public sector where their jobs would be secured indefinitely. At present, they are forced to compete for jobs in the private sector as the public sector is already saturated. This poses a problem for the GCC labor market since foreign workers who dominate the private sector offer better skills and have lower wages expectations (Kapiszewski, 2006: 13). Consequently, the GCC have already begun facing the problem of youth unemployment (Kabbani & Kothari, 2005: 4) and structural unemployment, which is unemployment "by choice" (McKinsey&Company, 2007: 6). Ultimately, a failure to meet the population‘s needs threatens the social stability of the region.

  • 1 See Bahrain 2030 Vision, Saudi Arabia Vision 2020, The Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, Vision 2020 (...)

3In the past, economic reforms undertook by the GCC had limited results. They lacked a comprehensive approach that would combine transformation of "private sector participation, labor markets, financial markets and human resources" in order to reach significant results (Shochat, 2008: 6). They also lacked political will (Sick, 1997: 12). Contrary to the past undertakings, the packages of through economic reforms adopted in the 2000's by the GCC governments, branded usually as "Visions"1, offer a holistic approach. Within the context of transformation, education reform is a key concern. Indeed, education and innovation could pave the way to the region's sustainability by promoting a shift from oil to knowledge-based economy (Hvidt, 2011: 51). However the region's human capital assessment falls significantly behind the world average. UNDP's Arab Human Development Reports and the two Arab World Competitiveness Reports (2002-2003 & 2005) stress that education, research and development are weak in the region. This serious shortage "exacerbates other problems associated with the importation of foreign workers and technologies" (Davis & Hayashi, 2007: 2). The World Bank's report, The Road Not Traveled: Education Reform in the Middle East and North Africa highlights the fact that despite major investments, the MENA region achieved minimal educational results. The latter were witnessed in international educational assessment tests such as TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) and PIRLS (Progress in International Reading Literacy Study).

Bahrain as a case study

  • 2 Oil comes from a Saudi offshore Abu Saafa filed to which Bahrain has been fully entitled in 1996.

4Bahrain shares problems of other GCC members; nonetheless, it presents a slightly different pattern of economic development. Bahrain is a small island country, its oil reserves have already dried out and due to a complex population composition the country has been experiencing waves of social upheavals. These factors prompted Bahraini authorities on the path of diversification reform ahead of other countries in the region. After the discovery of oil and gas in the 1930's, the government had already recognized the need for economic diversification (Wilkenson & Atti, 1997: 4). The shift from oil-based economy was initiated through governmental investment in industry, notably an aluminum plant and a ship-repair yard, as well as economic liberalization reforms fostering private entrepreneurship (Metz, 1993). Moreover, since the 1980's Bahrain has positioned itself as a banking hub for the region. In the 2000's Bahraini authorities under the leadership of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa pursued policies of liberalization in order to reduce the share of the public sector and to attract foreign investments. Key reforms included privatization of governmental sectors like telecommunications and tourism, the easing of procedures and removal of tariffs for businesses as well as for foreign property and company ownership without a local sponsor. Furthermore, the sponsorship system for foreign labor was reduced, allowing workers to change their job without the consent of their employers. Thanks to these undertakings, Bahrain ranked number one as the freest economy in the GCC in the 2011 Index of Economic Freedom as well as in terms of flow of Foreign Direct Investment in the region (Al Al-Iriani & Al-Shamsi, 2007: 12). These changes were mirrored in the GDP share (Table 1). Nonetheless, oil2 is still the dominant resource for the country's budget, accounting for more than 60 percent of the governmental revenues and more than 60 percent of total exports (Nakibullah & Islam, 2007: 6).

5Table 1. Changes in % contributions to GDP







Petroleum and Mining









Financial Services



Real Estate






6Source: Ministry of Industry and Commerce (n.d.)

Demographic changes

7The oil boom transformed Bahraini society, leading to high fertility rates that reached a high of 7.19 in 1964. Since then fertility has been slowly declining but even at the end of the 1980's it stood at 4.0 (Nugent et al., 1985: 64). It is important to note that the GCC governments have encouraged high natural increase rates estimating that in the future, nationals would replace expatriate workers (Winckler, 2005: 131). Consequently Bahrain, along other GCC countries, has one of the youngest populations in the world. Nonetheless, the growth of Bahraini population was accompanied by a steady increase of foreigners in Bahrain. Migrants account for more than half of Bahrain’s population. Such a high ratio comes third in the Gulf region, preceded only by United Arab Emirates and Qatar, both with an estimated 80% of foreign residents (Kapiszewski, 2004: 117).

8Table 2. Growth of foreign population in Bahrain 1971-2008





























% of Bahrainis







9Source: The ratios for 1971-2001 – Dito (2007); the ratios for 2008-2010 - Central Bank of Bahrain

10In the 2000’s, the transformation of Bahraini demographics was accentuated by the growing part of women in the job market. In the 1970’s women made up only for 4 % of the total workforce (Supreme Council for Women, 2001). However, in 2010 female participation in workforce rose to 32.1% (BEDB, 2010). Oil rentierism is usually believed to be the cause of limited economic and political participation of women in the Middle East (Ross, 2008: 108). Indeed, in a rentier economy, salaries in the public sector are sufficient enough to allow only one working member to support the whole family. However, Bahrain has less oil rent, thus salaries in the public sector are the lowest in the region; so is the share of national employees in the public sector (Table 3). Consequently, women may need to take on jobs to contribute to the household budget. Indeed, the World Bank study found out that the fertility decline in Bahrain was due only in 18% due to health reasons and 22% due to education (World Bank, 2004: 51).

11Table 3. Share of Public Employment Total Employment of Nationals (2005)





Saudi Arabia






12Source: Hertog, 2010: 7

13It is important to analyze the interrelation between the changing demographic structure and the patterns of social and economic development. On the one hand, foreign workers are key to rapid economical development of the GCC region. They are able to provide qualified workforce that accepts salaries averaging only one third of a salary of a Bahraini employee (CIO, 2009). The first decade of the 21st century was marked by an economic revival of the GCC economies (Dito, 2008: 2). Bahrain showed a stable annual GDP growth throughout 2001-2008 with a high of 8.3% in 2008. Increasing demand for foreign labor was noted by large infrastructure projects as well as by private companies. In 2009 foreign workers made up about 75% of total workforce in Bahrain with 391 000 employees (CIO, 2009), while in 2010 almost 80%. Foreign employees dominate almost entirely the private sector. Consequently, a gap between public and private sector exists in terms of income and offered benefits. Ultimately, low wages and hard working conditions deter Bahrainis from employment in the private sector. Thus, on the other hand, the presence of foreign labor is commonly believed to be the cause of structural unemployment of Bahrainis. In 2001, unemployment reached a record level of 16% among Bahrainis and 38% among the Bahraini youth alone, disenchanting the population (Al Baik, 2007). The nationalization of labor market was formally initiated in 1989. The program involved setting quota on employment of Bahrainis, job creation, training opportunities and raising work visa fees (Ministry of Industry and Commerce, n.d.).

14To begin with, the results of labor market nationalization programs transformed primarily the public sector that begun to favor employment of ethnic Bahrainis, thus replacing non-Gulf Arabs (Rivlin, 2001: 77). Thus, the relation between foreign workers and unemployment is worth exploring. Large numbers of expatriates occupy low to medium skill jobs that national workers are not willing to perform. Due to the competition of low cost expatriates, labor wages for this type of occupation have severely decreased (McKinsey&Company, 2007: 8). However, the cost of employing national workers in high skilled jobs is lower than the hiring of expatriates, yet local workers lack appropriate skills. Table 4 below indicates that expatriate workers are actually preferred in low skilled jobs, where the ratio of Bahrainis decreased over time. On the other hand, high skilled jobs witnessed a faster growth among expatriates than among Bahrainis.

15Table 4. Growth of Bahraini and Non-Bahraini workers by occupation








Professional,Technical & Related Workers





Administrative, Executive &

Managerial Workers





Clerical Workers





Sales Workers





Farms, Fishermen & Hunting






Miners, Quarrying Workers





Transport & Communications






Craftsmen, Product Process






Services, Sports & Recreation






Other Occupations





16Source: CIO, 2009 & Nakhleh, 2011: 89

17Even though labor market reforms initiated in 2006 managed to curb down unemployment to 3.5% in 2009 (CIO, 2009), the problem of future unemployment is worrisome for Bahraini authorities. Over the next decade, 100 000 Bahrainis are expected to enter the job market in this country of roughly 1 million inhabitants (Bahrain Factsheet, 2009). Data suggests that the lack of appropriate skills becomes a major deterrent in a broader participation of Bahrainis in the skilled workforce. Moreover, an evaluation from the Ministry of Education states that Bahraini students prefer humanities to technical fields of study that are most needed on the job market. Hence, those who graduate do not possess adequate skills to compete with expatriates in the private sector. On the other hand, employment in the private sector is booming, while the number of jobs created in the public sector has been stagnating for years.

18The Bahraini youths enter a competitive job market in an economy that strives to become independent from oil resources. It is not surprising that within the Bahraini Vision 2030, education was targeted as the area of primary importance. The program sets a number of goals within the field. It emphasizes the need for "Education and training (...) to be relevant to the requirements of Bahrain and its economy", emphasizing the teaching of applied sciences. It stresses the importance of "accessibility" of education, while meeting the need for "highest possible quality standards (by setting) standards for quality across the education sector, regularly review the performance of (...) educational and training institutions". Finally, it aims at encouraging research as the basis for the development of knowledge-based economy (BEDB, 2008: 22).

19Within the context of this study we will focus on the rapid expansion of the higher education as well as on the emergence of educational standards in the Kingdom of Bahrain.

Education in the Kingdom of Bahrain

20Bahrain has the oldest public education system in the Gulf and the literacy rates are among the highest in the Arab world (Nydell, 2002: 2). Established in 1919, it aimed at providing free public education on elementary level for male students and in 1928 it included also female students. Secondary education was initiated in 1936 for boys and 1951 for girls. Until 1968 there was no institution of tertiary education in the Kingdom and Bahraini students had to travel abroad in order to pursue their education. Bahrain experienced two waves of development of tertiary education institutions. First wave started in the late 1960s and culminated in 1984 with the opening of the University of Bahrain (UoB). This period was marked by the establishment of public institutions of higher learning such as the Teachers College in 1966, Gulf Technical College (renamed later Bahrain Polytechnic) in 1968, the College of Health Sciences in 1976, the College of Arts, Science and Education in 1979 and the Arabian Gulf University in 1979 (Madany et al., 1988 : 411). UoB was created by the merger of the Bahrain Polytechnic and the College of Arts, Science and Education. In the 2000's Bahrain experienced a boom in private tertiary education. 12 private institutions were established in the last decade. In contrast, only one public institution, Bahrain Polytechnic, opened its doors in 2008, serving as a centre of professional and technical education. The wave of Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) development which starts in the 2000's is linked to the transition from the rentier state economy as well as to the changing population needs. In 2008, tertiary education enrollment in Bahrain rose to 32.8%, while it is expected to reach 57.6 % by 2020 (Alpen Capital, 2010: 36). As the liberalization reforms were introduced in 1999, private institutions acknowledged new market opportunities in Bahrain. They attracted Bahrainis as well as other Gulf citizens who preferred to continue their education in the Middle East rather than in Europe or in the USA in order to avoid difficulties after September 11, 2001 (Toumi, 2010).

21The second wave of educational development in Bahrain is part of an international trend in the trade of educational services. The General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) agreement opened the market for educational services in 4 different modes, namely: cross-border supply (mode 1); consumption abroad (mode 2); commercial presence (mode 3) and the presence of natural persons (mode 4) (WTO, 2005). The opening of education to international market provided a new array of opportunities such as broader educational choices, satisfaction of local market needs as well as innovation through collaboration (Martin, 2007: 12). On the other hand, it created challenges and fears over quality standards and the protection of consumer rights. Lack of proper standards and regulations could lead to the creation of 'diploma mill' institutions that exploit the public (Martin, 2007: 13). It is necessary to evaluate the present state of Bahrain's institutions.

Overview of Bahrain's institutions

  • 3 The US-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement entered into force in 2006.
  • 4 Interview at the Bahrain Investors Centre on September 28, 2011.

22One of the solutions to the rising demand for higher education was to encourage the establishment of private institutions of higher learning. Some of the recently founded institutions were created by local capital, while others involved foreign investors. The regulations set out by the Ministry of Industry and Commerce, based on trade agreements, allow the establishment of HEIs fully owned by GCC, British or American3 capital4. Other investors require a local sponsor who controls 51% of the shares of the company. Table 5 details the ownership structure for HEIs operating in Bahrain.

23Table 5. HEIs ownership structure


Year of establishment


New York Institute of



Partnership with a local sponsor

AMA International University


Partnership with a local sponsor

Delmon University for

Science and Technology


Private company (Bahraini owned)

Ahlia University


Private holding company Arab Academy for

Research and Studies which is registered as

a for-profit institution

Applied Science University


Gulf Education Project W.L.L. Company

(Bahraini company)

Arab Open University Bahrain Branch


Private company (GCC owned)

Birla Institute of Technology International Centre


Partnership with a local sponsor (M/s Mohammed

Jalal and Sons W.L.L)

Gulf University


Private company (Bahraini owned)

RCSI Medical University of



Single Person Company (SPC) owned by the Royal

College of Surgeons in Ireland operating in Dublin

Royal University for Women


Private company (Bahraini owned)

The Kingdom University


Private company (Bahraini owned)

University College of Bahrain


Private company (Bahraini owned)

24Foreign investments classify under mode 3 of the GATS agreement and refer to "the physical presence of the supplier in the ‘receiving’ country, and it is exemplified by offshore campuses, twinning or franchising arrangements and satellite campuses" (WTO, 2005). In Bahrain, mode 3 arrangements include five branches of foreign universities as well as degrees offered in form of joint programs. In this scenario, students are enrolled at a local university in Bahrain that provides the facility and handles administrative affairs. Teaching is delivered by the staff of a partner university who temporarily move to Bahrain or by academics from both institutions. The degree awarded bears the name of a partner university located outside of Bahrain. Mode 4 of the GATS, i.e. the presence of natural persons, is currently under development in one institution in Bahrain. In order to raise the prestige of its M.B.A. degree, Arabian Gulf University (AGU) decided to include academics from France to deliver part of the courses. However, the degree is awarded by AGU. Table 6 below presents a detailed overview of the current status of institutions of higher education. What can be noted is that private institutions offer academic programs that are in line with the needs of Bahraini economy, which is a prerequisite for accreditation of a given degree. Thus, humanities are in general discouraged and the stress is put on applied sciences. The recently opened public institution, Bahrain Polytechnic, also provides training in the areas defined by the economic needs of the country.

25Table 6. Higher education institutions in Bahrain



Subjects offered


Mother Institution or Joint degree programme

University of Bahrain


Information Technology ; Business Studies ; Science


Business Administration


Law ; Engineering

B. Sc. / M. Sc.

Arts: English Language, Arabic Language, Tourism, Mass Communication, Sociology, History, Islamic Studies

B.A. / M.A.

College of Health Sciences


Health Sciences

B. Sc. / A.D.

Arabian Gulf University


Medicine & Medical Science

M. Sc. / Ph.D.

Educational Studies

M. Sc. / Ph.D.

Technical Studies

M. Sc.



In cooperation with Ecole Supérieure des Sciences Economiques et Commerciales (France)

New York Institute of Technology *


Business Administration

B.Sc. / M.B.A


Computer Science

B.Sc. / M.Sc.

Interior Design ; Computer Graphics


AMA International University




AMA Computer University (Philippines)

Computer Science

B.Sc. / M.Sc.

Administrative and Financial Sciences

B.A. / M.B.A

Delmon University for Science and Technology


Business Administration ; Accounting ; Political Science


Bahrain Polytechnic


Business ; Engineering ; International Logistics Management ;Visual Design ; Web Media; Office Management



Ahlia University


Business & Finance Information Technology

Public Relations, Business Administration, Mass Communication, I.T.

M.B.A. / M.Sc.

Information Systems, Business


Brunel University Ph.D. (UK)

Applied Science University


Information Systems; Graphic Design; Interior Design; Law, Accounting; Marketing, Banking and Finance; Management; Political Science


Computer Science; Management Information System; Business Administration; Human Resource Management; Law

M.Sc. / M.B.A

Arab Open University Bahrain Branch


Business; Information Technology


AOU (Kuwait)

Business Administration


Open University of Malaysia Masters (Malaysia)

Birla Institute of Technology International Centre


Engineering; Information Technology Business Administration





Birla Institute of Technology (India)

Gulf University


Human Resources Management & Public Relations; Accounting & Finance; Public Relations;Engineering; Computer science, Law Business Administration

B. Sc. / M.Sc.


RCSI Medical University of Bahrain


Medicine, Nursing

B.Sc. / M.Sc.

Royal College of Surgeons Ireland (Ireland)

Royal University for Women


Fashion Design, Graphic Design, Interior Design, Business, Computer Science, IT



Business Administration


Strathclyde (UK) M.B.A.

The Kingdom University


Computing; I.T.; Accounting; Finance; Law Management; Architecture; Interior Design Business Administration



University College of Bahrain


Business; I.T.; Media & Communication

B.Sc. / MBA

26* currently phasing out its operations in Bahrain

27Data source: university websites & phone interviews

28To begin with, we shall discuss the positive aspects of the current status of higher education in Bahrain. The existing institutions present Bahraini students with a broad choice of disciplines of study and available degrees. For instance, a twinning program offered through Ahlia University created the second possibility for Bahrainis to obtain a Ph.D. degree, which does not require a prolonged residence abroad. Moreover, a choice of international programs is an opportunity for the large expatriate population in Bahrain as well as for inhabitants of neighboring Gulf countries. In some cases, private HEI noted up to 30% of non-Bahraini students of various nationalities enrolling in their academic programs, while a public institution like the Arabian Gulf University had more international students than local ones. On the other hand, British or American degrees are considered to be an asset when applying for jobs at international companies in the GCC.

  • 5 Primary and secondary public schools offer education free of charge, while public universities char (...)

29The relatively high number of institutions created a more competitive market with a wide range of prices for educational services. The costs of education are the most affordable at public institutions5, however the number of seats is limited. Private institutions aiming at attracting students had to target different segments of society. As an example of such practices we can mention the AMA International University that was founded in Bahrain in 2002 with a mission to provide education affordable to all Bahrainis and subsequently offered fees comparable with public institutions. Moreover, a higher number of institutions offering similar programs provides graduate students with more choices to find a flexible timing in order to combine work and study.

30Some researchers (G-Mrabet, 2010) suggested the link between Western style education and problem solving and innovation. The traditional education in the Middle East focuses on memorization and hierarchy, while American and European curricula aim at providing the student with skills necessary for independent thinking and self-reliance. In the long run, foreign private universities can make a cultural change in this very traditional environment. Furthermore, other researchers (Mashood et al., 2009 : 3) emphasized the role of education in the processes of nationalization, especially in the private sector. Currently the private sector is reluctant to employ local workers due to lack of right skills, poor command of English language and their attitude towards work. Foreign universities in the GCC can produce a change by equipping their graduates with better skills to meet the expectations of the labor market.

31On the other hand, the proliferation of educational institutions carries multiple risks. High demand for education creates a vacuum that needs to be filled quickly with new educators. Because of the weaknesses of the national supervision and regulation system, educational institutions may suffer from a lack of qualified academics to deliver the courses, inadequate funding and consequently, may provide a very low quality of education (Martin, 2010: 13). Hatakenaka (2004 : 20) suggested that foreign universities may be motivated by quick profits and deliver education of a substandard quality at their branch campuses. These issues have been visible in Bahrain: until 2007, private institutions, after completing the initial requirements, were practically left without an external supervision. A study conducted in 2007 by the newly appointed Council of Higher Education revealed a number of academic and administrative irregularities such as the issuance of degrees without the required credits, (Toumi, 2010b), the trespassing of the required student-faculty ratio, or the delivery of courses and degrees without the proper license (Toumi, 2009). The concerns about low quality education were voiced in public and institutions found guilty of irregularities were named. The situation required a consistent approach towards higher education quality improvement.

A path to quality

32The strategy towards a quality education system has been emerging step by step over the last decade, along the reform of the national economy and of the government sector. In 2001 an assessment of the Bahrain Economic Development Board (BEDB) identified education as one of the six areas of economic development. Subsequently, the National Employment and Training Programme emphasized the need for adequate training and educational opportunities in order to improve the employability of Bahrainis. Furthermore, in 2004 a National Strategy for Bahrain was formulated to ensure continuous economic growth and sustainable development. Education was identified as a priority concern and subsequently, a national reform of the entire educational system was launched in 2005. The reform prompted important changes in the legal system regarding the quality control of higher education. The law on higher education 3/2005 states that

33"an Academic Accreditation Committee shall be established, formed of a number of experts and specialists in higher education, by a decision by the prime minister, based on the recommendation of the Cabinet; this Committee shall be tasked with setting down academic criteria and making recommendations for the accreditation of higher education institutions operating in the Kingdom, to be endorsed by the Council." (UNESCO, 2009: 17).

34The formulation of accreditation criteria was a beneficial step towards quality since there is "a widespread consensus that one of the most important methods for quality assurance is accreditation" (Global University Network for Innovation, 2007: 28). In order to implement the law, a Higher Education Council General Secretariat was established in 2006 within the structures of the Ministry of Education. The council was charged, among others, with tasks such as setting the conditions and criteria for granting licenses to higher education institutions, the issuance of licenses for new private educational institutions, the review of annual reports submitted by private institutions; following up the work of higher education institutions and monitoring their programs and supportive services, the quality of their performance and outputs (AlSaleh, 2008: 16). The council deals primarily with private institutions.

35The new licensing and accreditation criteria were set up in 2007 and included the following resolutions:

36By-Law no. 1 describes the conditions of licensing of private Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) such as the procedures of establishing new institutions, opening new degree programs as well as setting up affiliations arrangements

37By-Law no. 2 regulates the academic and administrative regulations of private HEIs, between the others, the required numbers and ranks of academic staff in different programs and the maximum teaching load of faculty

38By-Law no. 3 presents the financial regulation of private HEIs ; it specifies also that 3% of the annual revenue should be allocated to scientific research and 2 % to professional development

39By-Law no. 4 provides a detailed overview of the regulation on the building and premises of private HEIs

40A review of private higher education institutions based on these regulations was conducted throughout 2007. Institutions that were found in breach of the regulations were imposed a set of deadlines to comply with all the requirements or alternatively, have their licenses suspended or revoked. Suspicions of fraudulent practices were subject to investigation and public prosecution.

41Another important step in the formation of a strategy towards education improvement was set in the Bahrain Economic Vision 2030. This comprehensive program of national development published in 2008 by the BEDB is based on three pillars, namely economy, government and people. Within the scope of social development, the Vision stressed the importance of education. In order to execute the strategies of the BEDB in the area of education, the Quality Assurance Authority for Education and Training (QAAET) was formally launched established in 2008. The QAAET is an independent entity composed of four units: the Schools Review Unit, the Vocational Review Unit, the Higher Education Review Unit and the National Examinations Unit. The Higher Education Review Unit (HERU) is a complimentary entity of the Higher Education Council. Unlike the council, the HERU reviews public and private institutions as a whole and conducts institutional as well as program reviews. Its role within the educational system includes the enhancement of the quality of higher education in Bahrain by conducting reviews; the enforcement of the public accountability of higher education providers, and the promotion of quality assurance in higher education. The HERU’s reviews provide institutions with a reference according to which improvements can be measured.

The findings

42The quality assurance organizations in the GCC build their capacity out of the experiences of Western accreditation agencies (Abouammoh, 2010). For the purpose of institutional reviews, the QAAET uses 25 indicators derived from the Australian Universities Quality Agency, grouped into broader criteria, i.e. mission, planning and governance; academic standards; quality assurance and enhancement; quality of teaching and learning; student support; human resources, infrastructure and other resources; research and community engagement. The program review is based on four broad criteria. Since 2008 the QAAET has been conducting reviews of universities, which include self-evaluation reports, student and faculty interviews and on-site surveys of the institutions. So far 12 private institutions were assessed and we are going to base our research on these case studies.

43The overview of the institutions presents serious shortcomings that are found across all the organizations. The HERU concluded that three institutions made substantial progress in quality since their establishment; two institutions given their recent year of establishment were on the right track, while all the remaining received negative assessments. A common shortcoming is the lack of research activities. Although "research is a fundamental purpose of universities" (Knight et al., 1995: 17), private institutions in Bahrain are focused solely on delivering courses. HERU panel found evidence of one institution that implemented a comprehensive research plan. Another major concern is the lack of adequate quality assurance systems within the institutions to monitor quality and its improvement through surveys and feedback analysis as well as benchmarking.

44Other shortcomings are specific to each type of institution. To begin with, two out of five branch universities were found to operate like businesses rather than educational institutions in order to maximize their profits. This is one of the challenges pertaining to the internationalization of education, when profits may compromise the quality of higher education. This business venture approach was also found in one local university. Furthermore, branch universities did not have a sufficient autonomy but were all dependent on their mother campuses, which hindered in return their administration and management. On the other hand, the operations of local private universities were hampered by specific challenges. Two universities presented a clear lack of governance, planning and management; one of them showed a lack of integrity by submitting a plagiarized strategic plan of development to HERU. Two other universities were unable to adequately coordinate their efforts, due to a rapid growth of their institutions. They lacked a detailed strategic plan of development to support their educational mission.

45The program reviews revealed issues of concern as well. HERU investigated the Bachelor of Business degree at 11 private institutions and 1 public. Only 3 private universities along with the only public university examined, received a positive assessment. The remaining institutions obtained limited confidence in four cases and a lack of confidence in other four, from the part of the HERU. This constitutes a serious concern given the existing skills gap of national labor force in Bahrain (Tamkeen, 2009).

46Although the HERU reviews of all public institutions are not available yet, University of Bahrain seems to have well developed quality assurance mechanisms (Al-Alawi et al., 2009). Due to its status of national university it constitutes, according to the QAAET, an important asset in the realization of the goals of the Bahrain Vision 2030. The role of private HEIs in the process of labor market nationalization and transition to a knowledge-based economy is more problematic. It is interesting to note that the performance of some branch campuses, whose mother institutions boast significant achievements abroad, was assessed by the QAAET as insufficient and, in certain cases, poor. Internationalizing educational services may as well lead to the lowering of educational standards, especially in places like the Arabic Peninsula, where students are primarily interested in quickly obtaining a degree instead of obtaining adequate skills. Furthermore, job and salary expectations are merely based on the possession of a college degree. These considerations lead us to believe that without a co-ordination of efforts to enforce standards and review processes, private HEIs will be unable to sufficiently contribute in the transformation towards a knowledge-based economy in Bahrain. Moreover, unlike in other GCC countries namely Qatar or the UAE, where private educational institutions may get a partial or full support from the authorities to relocate, in Bahrain they have to rely on their own resources. This can lead to a stiffer competition between private institutions and ultimately to a business-like approach to providing educational services where quality may become of secondary importance. It is important to note that the quality review process was not initiated by institutions but by the Bahraini authorities in a bid to reform the educational system.

47The importance of quality assurance processes is thus essential. The QAAET declined so far to comment on its achievements in Bahrain, given that the evaluation process was not fully finished; it emphasized its role as a long-term partner in the quality assurance process, where the QAAET acts as a support to improve educational standards more than as an auditor. HEIs were invited to resubmit their self-evaluation reports with improvements based on the QAAET recommendations. The second review is still in progress, yet one institution has already improved its ranking. In the long run, HEIs may find it of primary importance to improve their standing as negative reviews will tarnish the reputation of the concerned HEI and decrease the students' enrolment.


48The quality assurance processes have been initiated in Bahrain only recently. They are part of a large strategy of economic development that stresses education as a mean of nationalizing the labour market. The initial lack of formal systems of supervision of higher education institutions led to low standards and market oriented approach in the case of many private institutions. The steps undertook by Bahraini authorities are vital to enforce a culture of quality. Indeed, the lack of compliance with the new requirements led to a temporary suspension of enrolment in 6 private universities by the Higher Education Council in 2009. We acknowledge the fact that our study is not complete due to current lack of HERU reviews of public institutions at the time of writing. However we believe that it provides an important insight into the problems of tertiary education in Bahrain given the lack of research in this area.

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1 See Bahrain 2030 Vision, Saudi Arabia Vision 2020, The Abu Dhabi Economic Vision 2030, Vision 2020 Qatar.

2 Oil comes from a Saudi offshore Abu Saafa filed to which Bahrain has been fully entitled in 1996.

3 The US-Bahrain Free Trade Agreement entered into force in 2006.

4 Interview at the Bahrain Investors Centre on September 28, 2011.

5 Primary and secondary public schools offer education free of charge, while public universities charge tuition fees.

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Magdalena Karolak, « Bahrain’s tertiary education reform : a step towards sustainable economic development  »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, 131 | 2012, 163-181.

Référence électronique

Magdalena Karolak, « Bahrain’s tertiary education reform : a step towards sustainable economic development  »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 131 | 2012, mis en ligne le 03 juillet 2012, consulté le 24 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Magdalena Karolak

Prince Mohammad bin Fahd University, Alkhobar, Saudi Arabia

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Le texte seul est utilisable sous licence CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés) sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

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