LEBANON: Quality assurance agency to be created

Lebanon plans to establish a national quality assurance agency to strengthen the competitiveness of its sole state university and numerous private universities. The aim is to develop a higher education system of international quality.

Hasan Diab, minister of education and higher education, has launched a plan to establish a monitoring system for institutional performance. The system will be overseen by an independent quality inspection agency, which will create new standards and qualifications.

In addition to building the capacity of the higher education ministry and increasing the efficiency of the management of its financial and human resources, the plan calls for setting up a higher education data and information centre to collect, analyse and disseminate information and inform policy and action. It will also seek to improve the performance of the ministry's Centre for Educational Research and Development.

A new law will be drafted to reorganise and modernise the administration of the Lebanese University.

In addition, a system for looking after the public interest in private education will be established, on a partnership basis.

Bassem Kaissi, vice-president for academic and international affairs at the Lebanon-based Modern University for Business and Science, told University World News that the plan would tackle the higher education system's most pressing need, provided it was given the necessary resources.

"The most important problems facing Lebanon's higher education system are the lack of laws, national agency, national standards, guidelines for quality assurance processes and accreditation procedures," he said.

Other problems included limited understanding of quality assurance and political and sectarian interference along with lack of faculty and staff development, adequate library facilities and cooperation and coordination, Kaissi added.

He warned, however, that the proposed legislation was taking too much of a top-down approach and called for changes to ensure that the independence of the national quality assurance agency was protected from undue ministerial and state interference.

Other potential problems include the issue of how students will be selected for the agency's board, and apparent discrimination in the differing requirements for board membership between Lebanese and foreign or Arab experts. Lebanese members will have to be full professors, while foreign members will be required merely to have experience in quality assurance.

Alain Harouny, a Lebanon-based higher education consultant and author of a November 2010 study by the Muhanna Foundation, Private Universities in Lebanon: Performance indicators, accountability and value-for-money, told University World News:

"The importance of the proposed quality assurance body is in putting higher education institutions, both public and private, prestigious old and relatively new ones, on an equal footing in terms of accountability to students and their parents and society and the economy."

He said Lebanon could benefit from the experiences of similar bodies established in recent years in the Arab region, regarding what works and what does not, especially given that most of those countries borrowed their standards and requirements from European and Australian quality assurance bodies.

"The higher education sector will witness a remarkable transformation in the coming few years as a result of internal reviews that universities will need to undertake and reforms that they will have to implement," Harouny said.

Kaissi added that it would be important for the government to safeguard and promote public confidence in the quality of higher education, assist institutions in enhancing the quality of their provision, and ensure that there is clarity and transparency in quality assurance processes and outcomes.

He said the system should be made more flexible to meet the demand for new skills by reforming the curricula and teaching and learning methods, and creating an open society for lifelong learning.

Hilmi Salem, director general of applied sciences and engineering research centres at the Palestine Technical University, said Lebanon offered an extreme example of the reliance in Arab countries on private universities, which constitute about 45% of the total number of Arab universities.

"To face this problem at the Arab level, it is time for the Association of Arab Private Institutions for Higher Education to join forces with the Arab Network for Quality Assurance in Higher Education and the Arab Organisation for Quality Assurance in Education to formulate a strategy for raising the quality of Arab private institutions and reinforcing private-public universities academic relationships," Salem said.