Saudi Arabia has a diverse and rapidly expanding system of
post-secondary education. The number of public universities
has more than doubled over the last five years with twenty
four now operating or in final stages of planning. There are
approximately 28 private universities and colleges, a number
which has also doubled over the same period. Further private
institutions are in various stages of development.
Significant restructuring is also taking place. Over 100 women’s
colleges and 18 teachers colleges have been incorporated into
public universities, and the responsibility for a system of nursing
institutes has shifted from the Ministry of Health to the
Ministry of Higher Education. In addition to these there are
a number of specialized institutions established by other Ministries
in medical and health sciences and other fields, community
colleges and military colleges and there is an extensive
technical training system. The training system is also expanding
rapidly with a public sector that includes men’s technical colleges
and higher technical institutes for female students and
several hundreds of private technical institutes.
The provision of higher education within the Kingdom has
emphasized undergraduate programs to provide for the large
and growing numbers of young people wishing to study. This
growth is continuing, but there is also increasing recognition of
the need for increased post graduate programs. Post graduate
programs are being expanded in a number of universities but
there is very high demand, not only for research and professional
positions in industry, but also to provide academic staff
for the rapidly expanding higher education system.
Some of the institutions are familiar with commonly used quality
assurance processes and in several cases there is extensive
experience with international accreditation agencies. However
there is wide variation and many institutions have had no such
involvement and have little familiarity with accreditation and
quality assurance systems.
Programs in higher education range from one year diplomas
up to doctoral degrees. Although there are similarities in standards
and requirements for academic awards there are also
variations that reflect the planning processes and expectations
of different Ministries, and relationships that have been established
over time with organizations in other countries.
The Government of Saudi Arabia has recognized the need to
provide a national mechanism to ensure that educational standards
are consistent throughout the country, and comparable
to those of other countries with highly regarded educational
systems. This is essential to support the country’s economic
and social development and to enable young people to participate
fully in the developing global economy. Saudi Arabia’s recent
entry to the World Trade Agreement will create important
opportunities, but will also require high levels of skills in the
working population, and confidence both within the country
and internationally that those levels of skills are being consistently
achieved. To help achieve these objectives the Government
has established a National Commission for Academic
Accreditation and Assessment (NCAAA) with responsibility for
academic accreditation of all post-secondary institutions and
programs with the exception of military education.
The newness of the Quality Assurance (QA) and accreditation
system and the relative inexperience with such systems in
many institutions is a major challenge. However it also presents
a great opportunity to develop and implement a system
that draws on most recent international experiences and
adapts that experience to the particular requirements of the
Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
The NCAAA is an autonomous body, financially and administratively
independent, but responsible to the Council of Higher
Education. It has the responsibility to establish standards
and criteria for academic accreditation, determine rules and
regulations for academic practice, and conduct periodic
assessments for accreditation and quality assurance of postsecondary
institutions. These assessments are of two kinds,
whole of institutional quality, and quality of programs. Its
responsibilities will include planning to promote more effective
performance in various fields of study, cooperation with
international quality assurance agencies, conduct of research,
and development of publications to support quality assurance
in Saudi Arabian institutions.
There are different perspectives on the nature of quality on
the part of quality assurance agencies in different parts of
the world. The main variations being a focus on “generally
accepted standards” as a basis for accreditation, or “fitness
for purpose”, a concept that emphasizes the importance
of diversity to reflect the differing mission and objectives of
autonomous institutions. The NCAAA does not see these approaches as being in conflict, though the relative importance
of the different perspectives will vary for different situations.
A major concern for the NCAAA in working with higher education
institutions is to achieve, and to be widely recognized as
having achieved, high standards that are comparable to the
best international institutions. However we also recognize that
there are significant differences in the nature and capacity of
higher education institutions and legitimate differences in their
mission that reflect the circumstances in which they operate.
Consequently the judgments made by the Commission will be
based on the achievement of high standards and the extent to
which the institutions are achieving their goals and objectives.
The NCAAA will also consider whether those goals and objectives
are appropriate for the institution in the communities in
which it is operating. In other words, “Fitness of Purpose”. In
summary the criteria used are consistency with generally accepted
standards, fitness for purpose, and fitness of purpose.
PRINCIPLES UNDERLYING the SYSTEM for
ACCREDITATION and QUALITY ASSURANCE
In developing system for accreditation and quality assurance
the following principles should be followed:
a. Responsibility for quality rests with institutions delivering
programs. The institutions delivering programs in Saudi Arabia
are responsible for the quality of those programs and for the
quality of all of their facilities and activities.
The principle of institutional responsibility has several implications:
First, while an external organization such as the Commission,
or a Ministry or other organization administering a system of
colleges, can have an important role in assisting institutions
this does not remove responsibility from the institution. An
external authority can help and can verify, but it cannot deliver
Second, although an institution may decentralize some of its
responsibilities or delegate authority to an internal unit such as
a College or Department, this does not remove responsibility
from the institution as a whole.
Third, if an institution in Saudi Arabia delivers a program that
has been developed elsewhere, it is still the institution in Saudi
Arabia that must accept responsibility and will be accountable
for the quality of the programs it offers.
b. Quality relates to all of an institution’s functions and activities.
Quality assurance processes in institutions should involve not
only their educational programs, but also other matters such
as facilities and equipment, staffing, relationships with the
communities served by the institution and the administrative
processes that link all these together. For an institutional evaluation
all functions carried out within the institution must be
considered. For a program evaluation all functions that impact
on the quality of the program must be considered regardless
of whether they are managed by the department or college
concerned or by central administrative units or centers within
c. Emphasis should be on support for continuing quality improvement
rather than on satisfying required standards.
The primary objective of the system for accreditation and quality
assurance is continuing improvement and this orientation
permeates all of the Commission’s activities. Institutions are
encouraged to work towards continuing improvement beyond
minimum requirements in all of their activities and the existence
and effective use of quality improvement mechanisms is
included within the standards that must be met.
d. Supportive relationships are essential.
Relationships of trust and support are essential within institutions
and between institutions and the Commission and the
reviewers with whom it works. It must be possible for individuals,
for groups within institutions, and for institutions as
a whole, to frankly acknowledge difficulties and discuss plans
for overcoming them. On the other hand attempting to conceal
problems is a serious weakness that will be open to criticism.
The style of interaction within an institution in working for
quality improvement, and between the Commission and the
institution during external reviews should be characterized by
cooperation, openness and transparency, sensitivity to mission
and objectives and constructive support in identifying and resolving
e. Assessments of quality must be evidence based and independently
Conclusions about quality should be based as far as possible on
directly observable evidence rather than subjective judgments.
Indicators of achievement should be identified in advance, related
to valid benchmarks to establish appropriate standards
of performance, and systematically reviewed. Where interpretations
are required, for example where indicators provide
indirect evidence of achievement of objectives, interpretations
should be independently verified.
f. Diversity should be encouraged provided standards are met.
Flexibility in organizational arrangements is necessary to
meet the needs of different communities, to respond to differing
missions and to reflect the differing circumstances and
resources of different institutions. Allowing diversity is also
essential if creativity and innovation are to be encouraged and
improvements are to develop over time. Specific requirements
for meeting quality standards may vary for different types of
institution. For example research may be an important element
in the work of some institutions and not for others, and
the way an institution interacts with its community should differ
for a large public university and a small college in a remote
g. Standards of learning outcomes must be consistent for all
While diversity in mission and approach is supported the quality
of learning expected for academic awards does not vary.
If community confidences in the system of post-secondary
education are to be maintained it must be possible to rely on consistent standards of student achievement no matter what
kind of institution students attend or how their programs
are organized. This does not put a ceiling on quality that is
achieved and of course some institutions will do better than
others. However it must be possible for the community to be
confident that necessary standards are being achieved everywhere.
h. Stakeholders should have substantial involvement in planning
and review processes with feedback regularly obtained,
analyzed, and responded to.
Stakeholders include students and graduates, staff, employers,
providers of funds, members of the communities served by
the institution and any other groups with which the institution
is involved. The stakeholders have a right to be involved,
but even more importantly, have perspectives that need to be
considered if a system for quality assurance is to be effective.
i. Quality improvement should be achieved through effective
leadership and widespread involvement.
A good higher education institution should be a learning organization,
in which all faculty and staff are involved in evaluating
their performance and that of the units within which they work
and offer ideas and plan for improvement following that evaluation.
This will not happen unless there is effective leadership
and coordination at the level of the institution as a whole.
While effective leadership is at least equally important at the
level of internal academic and administrative units.
j. The quality assurance and accreditation system must be tailored
for the requirements of Saudi Arabia and monitored and
improved over time.
A final general point is that the system must be designed specifically
for the requirements of this country. Although good
ideas from quality assurance and accreditation systems in operation
elsewhere have been carefully considered, they have
been adapted as necessary and combined in a system that fits
the circumstances and requirements of Saudi Arabia as closely
as possible. The impact of the new system will be monitored
as it is introduced and procedures modified as required. The
NCAAA’s processes are subject to quality assurance procedures
comparable to those that will be expected of educational institutions.
STAGES of DEVELOPMENT
The development of the system for accreditation and quality
assurance is occurring in three overlapping stages. The first of
these was the development of procedures, basic materials and
The second stage of transition involves training and preparation
for institutions, and the development of additional illustrative
and reference material that may be helpful to them. During
this period pilot reviews were conducted in two institutions in
which self-studies of a sample of programs and of the institutions
themselves were carried out, and external reviews were
conducted by international quality review teams.
All higher education institutions were asked to conduct initial
self-evaluations based on the NCAAA standards and strategic
plans were prepared for quality improvement to deal with
any problems found and introduce internal quality assurance
systems. A number of developmental reviews were carried out
and others are under way to provide experience with those
processes before the actual accreditation assessments begin.
The third stage of full implementation is started this academic
year 2009/2010. It involves periodic self-studies of programs
and institutions on a five yearly cycle, and we hope, continuing
improvement and international recognition of the high quality
of the Saudi Arabian system. A number of requirements for eligibility
for accreditation assessments have been developed to
ensure quality systems are in place, and accreditation reviews
in a number of public and private institutions are scheduled for
2010 and 2011.
The documents that have been produced are:
• Handbooks describing processes and requirements and
providing templates for use by institutions. The handbooks
are presented in three parts. Part 1 (NCAAA, 2012a), giving
a general overview and explaining key terminology Part 2
(NCAAA, 2012b), describing internal quality assurance arrangements
and providing templates for use by the institutions
and Part 3 (NCAAA, 2012c), describing the external
• Standards for Quality Assurance and Accreditation in
Higher Education (NCAAA, 2012d & 2012e). Eleven standards
have been identified, comparable to those used in
many other quality assurance systems. Each standard is
then broken down into sub-sections that provide greater
detail. The standards are presented in two forms. In one,
there is a statement of requirements for processes and
other requirements for accreditation. In the second form
the standards are presented as self-evaluation scales in
which institutions are asked whether the things asked for
are done at the institution and if they are done, how well
they are done (NCAAA, 2012f & 2012g). Responses to this
quality judgment are requested using a five point starring
system with provision for verification by an independent
observer, and priorities for improvement.
The statements of standards and the self-evaluation scales are
provided in different documents for institutional evaluations
and for assessments of the quality of programs.
The eleven standards that have been identified relate to:
1. Mission goals and objectives
2. Governance and administration
3. Management of quality assurance and improvement
4. Learning and teaching
5. Student administration and support services
6. Learning resources
7. Facilities and equipment
8. Financial planning and management
9. Employment processes
11. Institutional relationships with the community
A different set of standards that are appropriate for technical
training have been prepared for use in that sector and are
available in draft form.
Standards have also been prepared for programs offered by
distance education that follow the general standards, but include
a number of elements that are considered important for
that mode of program delivery.
• National qualifications framework. This document describes
learning standards expected for each qualification
level. Five broad areas or domains of learning have been
ii. Cognitive skills (creative thinking and problem solving
iii. Interpersonal skills and responsibility (abilities such
as leadership and group participation, ethical behavior,
commitment to and capacity for independent
iv. Numerical and communication skills (generic basic
skills expected of everybody including oral and written
communication, basic mathematical skills, and
use of ICT)
v. Psychomotor skills in fields of study where these are
The Framework is an important element in the strategy for
improving the quality of learning outcomes. Attention to this
range of skills has obvious implications for techniques of teaching
and student assessment, and particular attention to these
are given in recommended planning and reporting processes
and the templates for program and course specifications and
reports and in the standards for learning and teaching.
A multi sector qualifications framework is also available that
includes expectations for the technical training sector and describes
relationships be technical and higher education.
• Other documents
Additional documents are also available including a list of
key performance indicators to guide institutions in their own
evaluations and provide the NCAAA with information through
which to monitor the quality of the system as whole, examples
of student evaluation surveys, brochure describing the activities
of quality centers in institutions. A further project is under
way to define and circulate for discussion learning outcomes in
various professional fields.
ISSUES INVOLVED in DEVELOPING the NEW SYSTEM of
ACCREDITATION and QUALITY ASSURANCE
There are a number of issues involved, some that would relate
to any new system of accreditation and quality assurance, and
some that may be particularly relevant to Saudi Arabia.
a. Dealing with the diversity of the system
Post-secondary education and training in Saudi Arabia is provided
by many different kinds of institutions, large and small,
public and private, administrative oversight and support from
different ministries, different sectors with differing requirements
(technical, academic, professional) Learning outcomes
must be consistent but diversity to suit differing requirements
must be supported.
The Commission faces a significant challenge in the scale and
diversity of the post-secondary institutions with which it must
work. These range from large comprehensive universities (the
largest with over 100,000 students, to small single purpose
public and private institutions in different ministries, some
of which offer only one year programs in a limited number of
fields. It is necessary to define standards of good practice that
can be applied appropriately to these very different organizations,
and to support development of systems for internal and
external accreditation and quality assurance that will be suitable
The differences relate not also to the size and range of programs,
but also to the nature of teaching and learning involved.
For example there are fundamental differences between the
competencies based training driven by employability requirements
involved in most technical and vocational training programs,
and the higher education approach giving much greater
emphasis to research, and the development and application of
b. Implementing quality systems at a time of rapid growth
This will place heavy demands on a relatively small number of
individuals, institutions and government agencies. The requirements
for quality assurance must be met at the same time as
key people are required to plan and implement strategies for
expansion and the establishment of new institutions.
c. Recruitment of large numbers of international reviewers
In the early stages of the new system it will be necessary to
rely to a major extent on international reviewers. These people
have other commitments and the availability of substantial
numbers of appropriate people will be of concern. It will also
be a very expensive exercise. We have been extremely fortunate
in receiving assistance from other quality agencies and
from many individuals who have given help.
d. Development of commitment to a wider range of leaning
outcomes and skills in new teaching strategies
The need to change from what has been a traditional emphasis
on rote learning and shifting to creative thinking and
problem solving, and the development of personal attributes
of personal and group responsibility, leadership, is recognized.
However it is a more substantial and difficult task to spread
this commitment to a majority of teaching staff and to ensure
they are able and willing to use appropriate teaching strategies
to develop these abilities. Some resistance is to be resistance
from faculty members who are not convinced of the need for
these changes, or who lack the skills in different forms of teaching.
Institutions are beginning to introduce training in teaching
and a lot of attention will need to be given in institutions to
management of change strategies.
e. Responding to developments in technology and educational
These developments are occurring throughout the world, and
Saudi Arabia is in a similar position to many other countries
in dealing with these changes. They represent both challenges
and opportunities. It is necessary to be open to constructive
change, but also to exercise some caution to make sure that
good practice is preserved and the necessary learning outcomes
f. Increasing requirements for defining and verifying learning
The system must be consistent with worldwide trends to emphasize
standards of learning outcomes and to verify achievement
equivalent to high standards achieved internationally.
However benchmarking of standards is not a common practice
can be both time consuming and potentially threatening. It is
necessary to not only meet existing standards of learning in
other countries but to continue to improve to keep pace with
what is occurring elsewhere.
g. Increasing demands on institutions
Considerable effort will be required on the part of institutions
to implement and maintain an effective system for internal
quality assurance, and the imposition of independent external
evaluations may cause negative reactions if judgments made
are critical. This means that the system must be managed in
such a way that the processes are no more expensive or demanding
than absolutely necessary, that they are sufficiently
flexible to reflect the institutions’ own objectives, and that
they are recognized as providing real value to them. The relationship
between the Commission and the institutions must be
one of cooperation and support, with the shared objective of
improving quality. At the same time there cannot be any compromises
in quality, so a delicate balance must be achieved.
Initial reaction from institutions involved in pilot studies and
developmental reviews, and from participants in training programs
suggests a high level of cooperation and support.
h. Achieving acceptance and credibility for a local system for
quality assurance and accreditation
The institutions that have so far been most involved in quality
assurance activities have relied primarily on external judgments
by international accreditation agencies. This is obviously
appropriate when the concern is that programs are at least
equivalent in quality to those of good international institutions.
However the credibility of a new national system must also be established. As the system evolves it is intended to make
use of combinations of local peer reviewers and experienced
international evaluators. If too much reliance at an early stage
is placed on local reviewers there may be reluctance to accept
judgments by staff from other local institutions and doubts
about whether valid international standards are being applied.
On the other hand too much reliance on international experts
may lead institutions to dismiss critical evaluations by external
reviewers if there are any doubts about whether local circumstances
or the procedures of institutions are fully understood.
To respond to this issue considerable effort will be made to
ensure that processes are transparent, that external reviewers
are carefully selected and trained for their role, that those going
to an institution are seen to be totally independent of that
institution, and that an appropriate balance of Saudi and international
participation is provided. A process for appeal will
be provided if institutions believe that judgments are wrong.
The mix of local and international participants on evaluation
teams may differ for different types of institutions, but it is
anticipated that over time the proportion of Saudis involved in
evaluation teams will increase as experience is gained and local
credibility is established. However since international comparability
of standards is an important objective, at least some
external participation will always be involved from countries
against which Saudi Arabia wishes to benchmark itself.
i. Professional accreditation of programs
Qualifications frameworks developed as part of quality assurance
systems are usually expressed in generic terms that
apply to all fields of study. This is also the approach that has
been adopted here. In most countries there are also separate
requirements for programs in professional and technical fields
that relate to the requirements for the practice of that profession
or occupation. These are often separately developed by
professional associations, largely independently of the higher
education authorities or quality assurance agencies. In Saudi
Arabia these separate professional registration requirements
exist to a very limited extent. This is a challenge but it also
makes possible an approach in which statements of professional
registration requirements can be combined with the
qualifications framework and the other quality standards for
programs, so that the academic and professional accreditation
requirements are integrated.
j. Quality assurance for the commission itself
As a quality assurance agency the Commission should model
the quality assurance processes it believes are necessary in
the educational institutions with which it deals. This involves
establishing mission and objectives, adopting standards of
good practice, and a system for monitoring and progressively
improving its performance and its impact on the system in
which it operates. The Commission has prepared a good practice
statement to guide its own activities that is consistent with
the Code of Practice adopted by the International Network of
Higher Education Quality Assurance Agencies in Higher Education
and will adopt quality assurance processes comparable to
those it is requiring of post-secondary institutions.
The major objective of the quality system is to support the institutions
to achieve and to be seen to have achieved standards
that are at least equivalent to high international standards.
This applies to all their areas of activity, but the most important
element is the quality of learning outcomes achieved by
students. However this is probably the most difficult to assess
and continuing efforts must be made to support this result.
Mechanisms we have incorporated to help with this include:
• Providing detailed descriptions of generally recognized
standards of good practice in documents and procedures
that call for comprehensive self-evaluations and external
verification of those evaluations.
• Establishing expectations for basing evaluations on evidence,
including local and international benchmarks.
• Using experienced international quality reviewers able to
provide advice and make reliable comparative judgments.
• Developing a qualifications framework that specifies generic
standards for different qualification levels and domains
of learning outcomes and describing processes for verifying
consistency with the framework.
• Requiring as important elements within the standards processes
for verifying standards of student achievement.
• Developing, in consultation with local professional bodies,
learning outcome requirements and processes for program
delivery that are consistent with international expectations
in those fields and with the general quality assurance requirements
for the Kingdom.