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In the last two decades, the Higher Education context in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region witnessed remarkable changes in terms of increase in the number of institutions and of students’ enrollment, the establishment of regulatory bodies and measures, and the surfacing of serious challenges in terms of globalization, internationalization, and increased competition.
Coping with the emerging challenges necessitated embarking on a number of efforts in the MENA, some at national level while others were at regional and international levels. The focus of all of these efforts has been ‘quality’, ‘quality assurance’ ‘accreditation’, etc... Universal interest in Quality Assurance (QA), and the need to incorporate its principles and practices resulted in discussions, initiatives, and in some instances networks.
In this respect, many of the countries established their national quality assurance associations, however these were mostly geared towards accreditation and lacked autonomy. Unfortunately, no serious QA initiatives or associations have been established at the regional level despite efforts exerted by the Association of Arab Universities (AAU) and other players. Best that could be achieved was the Arab Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education (ANQAHE), a network of QA associations with the goal of establishing mechanisms of cooperation in the field of quality assurance. Even international efforts by international stakeholders (i.e. the World Bank Group, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Middle East and North Africa Association for Institutional Research (MENA-AIR) and others) failed to pave the ground for a regional collaborative framework for enhancing and sustaining quality in Higher Education in the MENA and Arab regions.
Recent efforts by the World Bank and the Center for Mediterranean Integration (CMI) on benchmarking governance in Higher Education Institutions in the MENA region is an attempt to provide governance as a framework through which an in-depth look can be obtained at both institutional and national levels, in addition to comparison with other countries in the region. Around 100 universities participated in the first round of the Governance Scorecard Survey in 2012, and a second round was launched in 2015-16. The experience of various countries has been shared in annual meetings, conference calls, and presentations. The project helped establishing a substantive database, identifying models-patterns of performance, and confirming benchmarking as a valuable tool for policy dialogue.
In my belief, this is what we lack and need in the region: More systematic and effective benchmarking, building on the work of others.
Despite differences, there are many similarities within the MENA region in terms of culture, language, and challenges. We can learn a lot from our experiences and maybe more than what can be learned from other regions. Finding good regional practices and learning from them, measuring our performance against comparative institutions, and establishing an online collaborative learning community, are all ways by which we can benefit from benchmarking to establish a quality culture; a culture that is built on encouragement, good practice, openness and transparency.
Benchmarking is also an internal management tool that enhances institutional quality by providing targeted information for strategic decisions through comparison with strategically relevant partner institutions. It can be carried out within a peer group on a one-to-one basis or against a database. It thus enhances inter-organizational learning and brings together the benefits of cooperation and competition.
Other than the Governance Scorecard Project, there have been few attempts at benchmarking in MENA region. A small group of American universities in the region (the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the Lebanese American University (LAU) from Lebanon; the American University of Cairo (AUC) from Egypt; and the American Universities of Sharjah and of Dubai (AUS and AUD) inform the United Arab Emirates) have resorted, to benchmarking some useful information among themselves as an individual initiative. Information shared and benchmarked involved faculty staff salaries and headcounts, enrollment, budgets, accreditation and rankings. However, little follow up has been done with this benchmarking, especially with respect to use made of this information in decision making or setting targets, etc.
Some claim that benchmarking and comparison information are already provided by ranking agencies and that therefore Higher Education Institutions do not need to engage in benchmarking as this has been done when several of these agencies have published regional league tables in the past few years (QS, US News, Times Higher Education, etc.). I strongly disagree on this claim, since the purposes, tools, and uses of benchmarking and ranking are totally different.
Rankings are externally mandated, do not recognize institutional diversities as they are ‘one size fits all’, compare ‘apples to oranges’, encourage competition, and their main impact is on reputation. On the other hand, benchmarking is university initiated and accordingly recognizes institutional diversity, compares ‘golden and granny smith apples’, encourages both competition and cooperation, and finally is considered a valuable internal governance tool. The above comparison does not belittle rankings, however they should be considered for the purpose they were developed for and they do not and should not release us from engaging in benchmarking as it supports efficiency across and within universities.
Benchmarking is simple, flexible, and builds on the work of others and for these reasons it makes sense.
This article is part of a blog series featuring the views of tertiary education experts from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regarding tertiary education in their respective countries as well as the use of the University Governance Screening Card, an innovative tool that enables universities in the region to compare themselves with international standards, define their own unique set of goals and establish benchmarks to assess the progress in achieving them. The University Governance Screening Card (UGSC) was developed under the World Bank/CMI program on tertiary education and applied by 100 universities in the MENA region.