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Higher education in the Sultanate of Oman began in 1986 with the establishment of Sultan Qaboos University (SQU), the only public university in the sultanate. As an autonomous higher education institution, SQU was given the privilege of developing academic programs without the requirement to consult all stakeholders. Stakeholder (faculty, students, alumni, policy makers, employers) participation in academic program development at SQU has gone through three main stages:

  • No participation
  • Deferred participation
  • Limited participation

In the “no participation” stage prior to 2007, academic program development was the sole responsibility of academics, who would design a general description of the program and curriculum. However, crucial components of program development such as program mission, objectives and learning outcomes were not required. Most importantly, only faculty members were consulted in the process. Once the program was approved by University Council, it immediately commenced.

In 2007, additional detail was required from departments due to quality-assurance regulations mandated by the Oman Accreditation Council that was established in 2001 (renamed in 2010 Oman Academic Accreditation Authority, OAAA). However, this program profiling remained in the hands of academics without other stakeholder participation.

The “deferred participation” stage started in 2010 after SQU developed a template to guide the process of academic program development. Although the template was useful, program design was still handled by faculty alone. Once the proposal was complete, it is sent to selected international academic reviewers for feedback. Employers write support letters only in the final stage for an already developed program proposal. Two shortcomings can be identified in this approach. First, international academic reviewers are still academicians representing a limited view of program content and purpose. Second, even though prospective employers are involved, they are consulted only in the final stage of program development.

In 2015, SQU adopted a new academic program review as a mechanism to meet OAAA quality-assurance requirements including the involvement of all stakeholders on department advisory boards and soliciting their feedback through surveys, questionnaires, interviews and focus groups. This program review pushed some departments to restructure and in some cases to develop entirely new programs.

As a result of the new program-review process, faculty members are required to submit a self-study report (SSR) for all existing programs including feedback from current students and alumni on curriculum, teaching and learning. The SSR is sent to a panel of international reviewers, who subsequently conduct a site visit. During the visit, the panel meets with all faculty members and policy makers at SQU; they meet with only a small sample of students, alumni and department advisory board members. Following the visit, the panel sends a report with recommendations leading to either program restructuring or development of a totally new program. Faculty members are then required to draft an implementation action plan.

During the SSR phase, only faculty, students and alumni are involved -- policy makers and employers are not consulted. Even though the international reviewers meet with all stakeholders, representation from some groups is limited. Furthermore, the implementation of the international reviewers’ recommendations is left in the hands of faculty to act on.

These shortcomings can be rectified by what we call an inclusive approach to academic program development that involves representative participation from all stakeholder groups. Stakeholders should be involved not only in the early stages of program review but also in the discussion of the international reviewer recommendations prior to any implementation decisions. This wider participation is necessary because it reflects the conviction that while academic programs are designed by higher education institutions, they affect the whole society over generations. Therefore, all stakeholder views should be considered.

An Inclusive Approach to Academic Program Development

In 1987 SQU’s bachelor’s degree in English language and literature was designed to address two purposes. The degree was seen as an essential academic program at a higher education institution in line with international norms. A second purpose concerned the local need for graduates with good English language skills to serve in various government institutions. The task of developing this program was assigned to a group of academics, who designed the study plan without a detailed vision, mission or learning outcomes and without consulting all stakeholders.

In 2007, the department was required to develop a program profile with greater detail but still without consulting all stakeholders for input. These efforts characterized the “no participation” stage of program development at SQU.

In 2015, the B.A. in English language and literature was one of the first programs subjected to academic program review at SQU. When the SSR was developed, feedback from a small sample of students and alumni was collected using surveys. Employers were not consulted. During the site visit, the international reviewers interviewed faculty members and other key actors. They met with some of the department advisory board members, students and alumni. A major recommendation of the review panel was to develop a new B.A. program. The implementation was left in the hands of the department faculty, who were expected to develop an action plan and act upon it, still without consulting all stakeholders and limiting their involvement in the new program development.

The department decided to embark on an extensive data collection exercise that included surveying representative samples of students, alumni and employers for feedback on the current program and requesting suggestions for the new program. When the data were analyzed, they showed divergent perspectives on the future of the program. This divergence was attributed to the fact that the data were collected from the different groups in isolation from one other. The department then organized a national workshop, bringing together all categories of stakeholders in a constructive dialogue toward consensus on the future of the program.

The recommendations reached in this workshop were focused, insightful and informative. Prior to the workshop, faculty argued that the focus of the new program should remain on English language skills and English literature but could be expanded to include modern world literature. By contrast, employers thought that the focus of the program should be on intercultural communication, media literacy and ICT. Some of the students and alumni categories supported the modern literature focus, while others leaned toward communication and media literacy. The workshop facilitated a consensus that accommodated a B.A. with two components: a core program and different specializations. The core program would cover the English language and communications skills while the specializations would offer options such as literature, creative writing, drama and film studies, linguistics, and intercultural communication.

The inclusive approach in academic program development recognizes the importance of input from all stakeholders in the program design process. This approach provided SQU with a 360-degree view, making academic program development a shared social responsibility with outcomes more likely to address diverse stakeholder needs.

Abdul Gabbar Al-Sharafi is an assistant professor in the Department of English Language and Literature, SQU, Oman. He is the head of the department.

Fatema Al-Rubai’y is an assistant professor in the Department of English Language and Literature, at SQU, Oman. She is the deputy head of the department.

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