Muscat: No one in Oman can be in any doubt about the vital importance of education to the country's future, and in an increasingly skills-based global economy, those countries which equip their workforce best in terms of knowledge and analytical ability will have a head start on their competition.
Currently, Oman is still having to import vital technical and academic skills from abroad, rather than being able to develop its own base of domestic expertise. Clearly, this has significant knock-on effects for both the balance of trade and the wider economic picture within the Sultanate.
To its credit, the Government of Oman has seen the need for a large-scale expansion in quality and home-grown education. Unfortunately, as is often the case with any significant boom in an economic sector, appropriate regulation has sometimes been difficult to provide in a timely fashion.
With so many new higher education institutions being set up within Oman, students and academics alike have found it difficult to assess which universities are able to provide them with an appropriate learning and research experience. While some Omani institutions have developed strongly, others have encountered problems with both resourcing and quality control.
Indeed, this problem has now grown so significantly that the Omani authorities have recently announced a moratorium on approvals for new universities over the next three years. Wisely, the Education Council has decided that such a pause is necessary, in order to investigate the current standard of universities within Oman, and also to think more strategically about how investment should be channelled into higher education institutions.
The government is keen that any further expansion within the university sector should serve both the needs of the Omani job market, and the wider, long-term goals of Omani development.
While there are many ways in which the Omani education sector could adopt best practices from other countries, one of the most obvious steps to take would seem to be the design and integration of Key Performance Indicators for higher education institutions. Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) are simply a set of values which are measured over time and enable comparison of one institution with another.
Many education sectors in the West have been using KPIs for decades, and have found them to be extremely useful when assessing and contrasting the academic and pastoral offerings of various universities.
They have allowed both students and researchers to make more informed choices about which university or college to join. Perhaps, it is no surprise that the Oman Academic Accreditation Authority (OAAA) has already laid a strong foundation for the introduction of KPIs. Indeed, the OAAA have already advocated a move towards KPIs, as part of an environment in which transparent institutional comparisons can be drawn and used effectively.
This would clearly assist both students and researchers when choosing an institution to attend. As just one example, higher education institutions with excellent graduate employment rates for specific sectors could utilise their record by highlighting the relevant KPI, and by pointing out their success in comparison to competitors.
This could rapidly lead to published university league tables within the Sultanate. League tables consist of multiple, weighted KPIs, measured in relation to other identically assessed institutions. Within the higher education sectors of developed nations, league tables have a huge influence upon student choice, as well as on the strategies and allocations made by funding bodies. While league tables vary from country to country, common indicators can include research quality, teaching quality and achievement of students, as well as the satisfaction of students with the institution itself.
Given the desire of the Education Council to take stock of the current state of the country's education sector, the design and imposition of compulsory KPIs would seem to be a sensible move.
However, caution should be shown as management theory makes it plain that 'what is measured, is managed'. Placing too much stress on specific KPIs can distort education outcomes, and can mean that certain subjects or areas of work are neglected as they do not appear in league tables.
This has been a perennial complaint in the developed world, particularly amongst academics who teach the humanities and whose topics often are not amenable to easy measurement.
Oman, however, has the chance to learn from the drawbacks of established KPI regimes, and to institute league tables which truly reflect the goals of the country's education strategy.
Along with other management approaches, this could lead to Oman becoming a world leader in the sector.
(Dr Richard Nathan Rutter is an academic at the Sohar University, Sohar, Sultanate of Oman and Dr Awadh Ali Al Mamari is from College of Applied Sciences, Sohar, Sultanate of Oman)