Managing the Complexities of Accreditation

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Wednesday, October 18, 2023
By Mohammad N. Al-Marzouq, Geralyn McClure Franklin, Benjamin Stévenin
Photo by iStock/FatCamera
Accreditation is a weighty goal, but for business schools in Gulf countries, the process can present added barriers. Here, we suggest possible solutions.
  • As business schools in Gulf Cooperation Council countries pursue accreditation, they can face culturally specific barriers, such as complex regulatory environments and limited stakeholder buy-in.
  • GCC business schools must take steps to overcome each barrier, from engaging all stakeholders in the accreditation process to advocating for regulatory changes that support global accreditation.
  • International accreditation bodies can take steps to mitigate obstacles to accreditation by, for example, improving regulations and designing standards that take cultural contexts into account.


International accreditation does not just signify a higher education institution’s commitment to quality, continuous improvement, and adherence to globally recognized standards. In today’s interconnected and competitive global landscape, accreditation can be an important way for institutions to enhance their reputations, attract prospective students and faculty, and foster valuable partnerships.

Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries—which include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—host numerous universities and educational institutions, many of which are new but quickly rising in prominence. The governments of GCC countries have been rapidly investing in education infrastructure and reforms to promote higher learning and research. In this environment, more business schools are pursuing or working to maintain accreditation. But as they do so, they are likely to encounter unique barriers that arise from the region’s specific linguistic, cultural, and regulatory contexts. This region of the world has unique challenges in accreditation.

But it is important that business schools in this part of the world overcome these challenges because achieving international accreditation is about far more than meeting institutional objectives. Accreditation also can be a critical way to support the strategic educational goals of GCC countries and elevate the GCC as a key player in the global educational landscape. Below, we outline the barriers that schools across the region face and suggest ways they can successfully navigate the challenges of international accrediation.

Global Challenges in the GCC Context

To achieve accreditation, all business schools must commit sufficient funding, staffing, and time to the effort; they also must communicate the importance of accreditation to stakeholders to ensure that they have their community’s support. But while these challenges are common to all business schools, GCC business schools must take additional factors into account. This is true particularly in the following areas:

Academic leadership. Leadership in many GCC organizations is often based on family and political connections rather than experience or expertise, and it is no different at higher education institutions. That reality can make it more difficult for business schools to inspire widespread, continuous support for the accreditation process.

For this reason, GCC business schools must prioritize the development of knowledgeable and visionary leaders who can articulate a clear strategic direction and garner stakeholder support. These leaders should be committed to ensuring the continuity and persistence of strategic goals despite changes in leadership.

Resource allocation and management. Partly due to a lack of institutional commitment, planning at GCC universities is often ad-hoc or outsourced. Initiatives can lack stakeholder buy-in, be misaligned with capabilities, lack outcomes assessment, and target only short-term success.

Therefore, GCC business schools must design strategic planning cultures that support sound and adaptable long-term strategic planning and effective implementation. To encourage institutional commitment to the goal of accreditation, administrators must advocate for their schools and show university leadership how the business school’s international accreditation aligns with institutional priorities.

Leaders of GCC institutions also must embrace effective resource management—regarding financial, human, and infrastructural resources—by identifying priorities around accreditation requirements and expectations. That means setting realistic targets, aligning incentives with chosen targets, and monitoring progress toward accreditation and broader strategic goals.

Quality assurance and continuous improvement. Most GCC institutions have already put in place extensive quality assurance in terms of curriculum and assessment, but these mechanisms typically are cumbersome and input-based, rather than optimized and outcomes-driven.

To embrace best practices, institutions must refocus continuous improvement on outcomes by conducting regular curriculum reviews, benchmarking against global standards, and engaging with industry and external stakeholders. They must design assessment cultures where faculty buy-in is the norm and where assessment data is used to streamline the process and drive improvement efforts.
Administrators must advocate for their schools and show clearly to university leadership how the business school’s international accreditation aligns with institutional priorities.

In creating such cultures, schools in all parts of the world might face pushback. But GCC institutions might face additional resistance because the assessment culture there is relatively new and not well understood. For example, some faculty might fear they are the ones being assessed, not the program. Administrators must devote time to explaining the purpose and importance of assessment and involve faculty in the evaluation process.

In this way, GCC institutions can ensure that they are keeping their programs aligned with market needs and preparing students to succeed in the global workforce. More important, they will build cultures where assessment is focused on outputs and continuous improvement, not merely on inputs and “checking boxes.”

Faculty and staff qualifications and sufficiency. It’s true that business schools need sufficient well-qualified faculty and staff to deliver quality education and meet accreditation requirements. However, GCC institutions often focus too heavily on recruiting an all-star faculty team with similar backgrounds and credentials. This approach is not realistic for all institutions, many of which might have limited resources or face a lack of qualified candidates.

Rather than striving for an unattainable ideal, GCC institutions can instead develop diverse portfolios of faculty with different competencies. Some might be great researchers; others, superb teachers. Different faculty might achieve different levels of service. Not all faculty need to be the same to make valuable contributions to the school’s mission.

Then, GCC institutions can provide faculty with ample professional development opportunities—in the form of workshops, seminars, and conferences—to help them maintain their qualifications and stay up to date in their fields. In addition, business schools can redesign their incentives to emphasize performance in ways that go beyond counting journal publications. This step is likely to have a trickle-down effect and drive positive change around the highest performers.

By taking these steps, institutions place themselves in better positions to enhance their programs and meet accreditation requirements.

Scholarly activity. Establishing a vibrant research culture in line with international accreditation standards is a complex task for institutions in the GCC for two main reasons. First, schools face key barriers such as limited resources and a lack of an audience interested in business research. Second, in GCC countries, it is more common for research to be funded by the government—or by universities based on government requirements. Industry and individual donor funding for research is much less prevalent.

To overcome these barriers, GCC institutions need to devise innovative funding models and partnerships, as well as design more solid infrastructures for research creation and consumption. It is essential that institutions create new research outlets such as peer-reviewed journals, encourage more interdisciplinary collaborations, forge stronger links with regional stakeholders, and align faculty research with regional priorities. Schools also can expand the impact of their research by collaborating with industry and with individuals who will fund research of both regional and global importance.

By making these changes to research cultures throughout the GCC, schools will build a larger market for research, as well as create region-specific research to help businesses thrive. In the process, each institution will increase the visibility and relevance of its faculty’s research, while bolstering its competitiveness in the global higher education landscape.

Globalization. Promoting internationalization and fostering collaboration are essential aspects of global accreditation standards. But because many GCC schools are comparatively new or historically have been regionally focused, they have not yet developed strong internationalization strategies. Some have difficulty attracting international students and faculty via exchanges. To this end, schools pursuing accreditation must do more to increase student and faculty international mobility, form international partnerships, and encourage collaborative research that leads to publication in international research journals.

Local Challenges Facing GCC Schools

In the pursuit of international accreditation, business schools in GCC countries also must address challenges that stem from the interplay of cultural, social, regulatory, and economic factors that distinguish the region. We address these challenges below, and suggest ways to address them:

Limited stakeholder awareness and buy-in. In GCC countries, a university’s stakeholders—both external and internal—often do not understand the value and importance of international accreditation. That makes it essential for business school leaders to align their school’s goals with the goals of the university. Then, they must communicate the shared benefits of accreditation frequently and effectively to gain the support of not only faculty, staff, and students, but also university leadership and external partners.

By fostering cultures of accreditation and engaging all stakeholders in the process, academic leaders can build a shared understanding of accreditation’s value.

By fostering cultures of accreditation and engaging all stakeholders in the process, academic leaders can build a shared understanding of accreditation’s value and ensure a collective commitment to quality and continuous improvement.

Regulators also can play an important role in institutionalizing international accreditation to encourage quality improvement in higher education. As an example, AACSB International and the UAE Commission for Academic Accreditation have formalized an agreement for joint visits for universities having both accreditations.

Complex regulatory environments. Local and international regulations, visa requirements, nationalization laws, and differing accreditation prerequisites across GCC countries can require higher education institutions to take convoluted paths toward compliance. Particularly impacted are government-funded or federal institutions that must balance mandates to prioritize local hires and meet local education demands with their broader international accreditation goals, while simultaneously grappling with institutional inertia or profit-driven imperatives. This requires effective decision-making, agile adaptation, and strategic resource allocation.

It is essential that institutions advocate for regulatory changes that encourage schools to pursue global accreditations and quality education. Only then will they foster an environment more conducive to achieving their accreditation goals. If they cannot inspire such changes, they will continue to face barriers as they strive to achieve improved quality and meet international standards.

Cultural and social factors. Institutions in the GCC must balance local cultural values and traditions with an adherence to global accreditation standards. They are required to create policies and curricula that incorporate and respect local customs and perspectives and foster an inclusive environment for diverse faculty, staff, and students.

For example, for cultural and religious reasons, some GCC universities might have separate course offerings, activities, and facilities for male and female students. In this case, perhaps a school could make its graduate programming coeducational. Or it might find opportunities to develop tailored academic programming and activities to meet the specific needs of different groups of students, whether based on gender, culture, or other factors.

In any case, to meet international business education expectations, GCC schools must take a balanced approach. They must help students understand diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) from a global perspective, while also respecting what DEI looks like and how it is evolving in the national context.

Moreover, accreditation bodies need to consider that some practices—such as those related to gender segregation in education—are influenced by the region’s religious and cultural values. Accreditors need to take those values into account in their standards, especially those relating to diversity and inclusion.

Language barriers and proficiency. Many faculty members in the GCC teach in English but conduct official business and correspondence in Arabic. This can create a language barrier that makes it difficult for administrators to ensure that faculty, staff, and students have the necessary English language skills to engage with international accreditation staff and understand the requirements.

Accreditors need to take a region’s religious and cultural values into account in their standards, especially those relating to diversity and inclusion.

Institutions must invest in language support and resources, such as professional development programs and language centers, to develop bilingual communication capabilities. More than that, they must encourage the use of English as the primary language for official accreditation-related communications. Universities should also collaborate with governmental bodies to enhance the quality of English language instruction at the high school level, so that students can transition more smoothly into higher education.

Emphasis on rapid growth. Recently, the GCC has seen a rapid expansion in the higher education sector—which sometimes has occurred at the expense of quality. If institutions aspire to meet international accreditation standards, they must strike a balance between growth and quality assurance. By focusing on continuous improvement, transparent decision-making processes, and stakeholder engagement, institutions can maintain a strong commitment to quality as they grow.

Accreditation as a Path to Regional Development

It’s clear that if institutions in the GCC want to successfully pursue international accreditation and enhance overall performance, they must first overcome obstacles that are both general and region-specific. To achieve their accreditation goals, they will be required to implement multiple solutions simultaneously. In short, they must foster effective leadership, adopt strategies to improve the impact of higher education in the region, ensure efficient resource allocation, promote internationalization, support research activities, and navigate local and international accreditation requirements.

However, it is important to note that institutions across the region also need the support of regulators and international accreditation bodies if they are to achieve their educational goals. These agencies can help schools enhance overall performance by improving regulations, institutionalizing international accreditation, engaging with higher educational institutions, and ensuring that accreditation standards take cultural contexts into account.

Ultimately, GCC institutions must remain true to the traditions and customs of their countries. They cannot simply adapt culturally incompatible habits, practices, and models just to achieve international accreditation. Because regional culture and traditions are integral parts of their identities, GCC institutions must work with and around these unique aspects to improve higher education.

When GCC business schools address these challenges by implementing the solutions suggested here, they will put themselves in strong positions to achieve international accreditation. By supplying talent and region-specific research, they also will contribute to regional development, innovation, and prosperity—and ensure a bright future for the region’s higher education sector.

Mohammad N. Al-Marzouq
Associate Professor of Management Information Systems, College of Business Administration, Kuwait University
Geralyn McClure Franklin
Search Consultant, Higher Education Leadership Search, and Former Dean, College of Business and Economics, United Arab Emirates University
Benjamin Stévenin
CEO, ACADEM by RimaOne
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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