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How Saudi Universities Rose in the Global Rankings

You can hear the smile in Saeed Alshamrani’s voice down a crackly phone line from Riyadh. The associate education professor’s program was one of the winners in this year’s rankings.

King Saud University’s education faculty was the only one in the Arab world to achieve a top 100 rating in its discipline in the 2013 QS rankings.

A key contributor to the department’s success, Alshamrani explains, are the “excellence clusters” that the university has set up, including his group, the Excellence Centre for Science and Mathematics Education.

“We have a clear focus,” he says, with evident pride. “It’s about improving our research and that will improve our situation in science and mathematics education in Saudi Arabia.”

The major rankings – those done by Times Higher Education, QS and Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Center for World-Class Universities – give the impression that Saudi Arabia’s best universities, King Saud University and King Abdulaziz, comprise a minor Arab Ivy League.

That notion raises objections in other parts of the Arab world. Many elsewhere take the attitude that those ranking results discredit the metrics themselves.

Others point to money’s influence on the rankings, and insinuate that – at worst – the Saudis have bought their way to the top or – at best – the country’s money has made competing with it impossible.

But the reality is that Saudi Arabia, often mocked abroad as a redoubt for the reactionary and over-religious, has produced many of the Arab world’s scientific and engineering avant-garde of late. “Saudi Arabia has been using its resources to help them engage and lead. And I think they are on the right track,” says Nasser Mansour, a senior lecturer in science education at Exeter University, who supervises Saudi students there as part of the institution’s research partnership with King Saud University.

The beginning of the academic year in the northern hemisphere is rankings season in higher education. This year, as usual, old school Anglo-Saxon institutions, venerable universities such as Oxford or Stanford, have dominated the top of the lists.

But in the Arab world, institutions with hundreds of years of history, institutions famous across the Islamic world, such as Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, are almost universally absent. Instead, the top Arab institutions in the list are just decades old. The Saudi “A-team” – King Saud University and Abdulaziz– were set up in the 1950’s and 60’s.

In subsequent decades, a number of other universities sprang up in Saudi. Still, the universities were largely dominated by religious studies. In the 1980’s and 90’s, the education ministry emphasized Islamic ideology and the Arabic language. That emphasis shifted as the Saudi royal family decided to embark on a shake-up of higher education to promote vocational training and internationally competitive scientific research.

As a consequence, the country’s higher-education ministry set up a number of “blue ribbon advisory panels,” comprised of international consultants, says the University of Pittsburgh’s John Weidman, a professor of higher and international development education, employed as a consultant in Saudi in 2006. The panels were given relative autonomy from the government to recommend changes.

King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, an all-male institution, was the first university to try out the reforms, the outline of which could be found in a 25-year plan drawn up by the ministry in 2006.

“They [the government] coupled efforts to improve the quality of science instruction with some efforts to slowly change the status of women in higher education,” Weidman said.

“They really wanted to show the world that the Saudis could do some unique things. Because they’d really been accustomed to importing technology for things as basic as the desalinization of salt water.”

The 25-year strategic plan was to be realized in several five-year increments, 2006 briefing papers show. One stage of the plan, dating to 2010, points toward a research focus for many Saudi universities. That phase of the plan fosters competition among Saudi universities and pushes globally competitive and utilitarian research. And the 2010 white paper’s vision aligns with criteria that the rankings privilege.

In 2013, the results are in. Today, the top echelon of Saudi universities is the best in the Arab world, according to the rankings anyways. The universities regularly place in the top 400 worldwide; their exact rank fluctuates year-on-year.

In this year’s rankings, the “Saudi sandstones” were the only Arab universities to feature in all three major surveys, with all making it into the top 400 in Times, QS and Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings.

And they weren’t the only Saudi universities to be included in the rankings. King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals featured in two of the three listings.

Another university, King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), entered the Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings in the 400-500 band. Moneyed, English-speaking KAUST was founded in 2009 with a $10-billion endowment.

Yet almost everyone in the rankings business sees the potential for the university to advance very rapidly, although its postgraduate-only status precludes inclusion in the Times and QS rankings.

“KAUST is interesting, even though it doesn’t show up in our rankings,” says Ben Sowter, the head of QS’s intelligence unit. “They have got one of the fastest growing research and citation records in the world right now.”

KAUST – which did not respond to Al-Fanar Media’s request for an interview – specializes in applied sciences and in fields geared towards national development, such as desert agriculture, and buzz technologies such as nanotech.

The elite institution’s focus reflects the broader Saudi sector’s strengths, an analysis of this year’s rankings results shows.

The Shanghai Jiao Tong ranking rates three Saudi universities (King Saud, King Abdulaziz and King Fahd) in the top 150 engineering schools worldwide, for example. And QS has placed King Fahd well across several engineering disciplines, from aeronautical to electrical engineering.

Another Saudi strength is mathematics. King Fahd is rated in both the QS and Shanghai Jiao Tong rankings for its program. King Fahd, King Saud and Abdulaziz all make it into the top 75 of the Shanghai top 200-math list.

In practice, say researchers, the Saudi sandstones’ success can be explained by elite university research centers that are relatively outward looking. Within their fields, many centers have research autonomy. And partnerships with international institutions mean that foreign scholars are involved in both center research and reviewing grants.

“We have research groups that submit their proposals. And we study the proposals with a very critical eye,” says Saed Alshamrani at King Saud University’s Excellence Centre for Mathematics and Science Education.

The Saudi Arabian state boasts the highest university spend as a percentage of GDP in the world, according to a ranking  of national higher-education systems released earlier this year by Universitas 21, a global network of research-intensive universities.

“The vision of the centers is to be leading; that is the vision of higher education in Saudi Arabia: To lead in terms of research,” says the University of Exeter’s Mansour. “They have a lot of money. But it’s not all about money. They are very keen.”

Outcomes at one top center, at King Saud, are measured both in terms of how they contribute to national development and in relation to competitive benchmarks, scholars say. Above and beyond this, however, the center is judged on the number of publications they place in competitive, English-language journals. King Saud’s science and mathematics education center seeks to place publications in top-ranked, highly regarded journals– specifically those that are rated at threes or twos in the Thomson journal rankings.

Some observers say the no-strings-attached funding granted to the centers and their elite researchers carries dangers. “I make this point… about building a culture of productivity. . .to my Saudi colleagues all the time,” says another U.S. professor, who works as an education consultant in Saudi Arabia.  Supporting the centers instead of individual researchers or research teams via competitive grants results in some people being paid a lot to do a little, he says. “They have to be enterprising. It’s not my view that the Saudis are very enterprising.”

That indolence is holding Saudi research, and by inference the university rankings back, he implies. And the consultant is not the only one to criticize the Saudi model. Some critics argue that the Saudi government’s decision to focus so much of university resources on research is the wrong decision, given the well-known demographic challenges that the country faces—a large swell of young people. The critics counsel more teaching-focused institutions.

Others, quoted in a 2011 Science magazine report, accuse King Saud and King Abdulaziz of inflating research and rankings performance by paying highly cited foreign faculty to create “on-paper only” affiliations with Saudi research institutions. King Abdulaziz calls the arrangements legitimate attempts to boost its research talent, while King Saud scholars say their university’s recruitment practices are standard for the industry.

Elsewhere in the Arab world, critics argue that, high-quality science and engineering research notwithstanding, the Saudi institutions are not comprehensive research universities just because they have a few bright spots in some disciplines.

After all, this argument goes, none of the Saudi schools made the top 100 in the big three rankings this year. If they want to climb further up the rankings ladder, the Saudi universities will need more radical reforms that will increase freedoms across all fields.

Today, most of the world’s most elite institutions – the top 50 – are located in democratic nations.

“If you’re focused and specialist, we will be able to capture that excellence,” says Phil Baty, the rankings editor at Times Higher Education. “But I do believe on a personal level that…you won’t see yourself challenging Harvard or Oxford or Cambridge without a very open and free approach to higher education.”

See also the article on “Are the Rankings Relative to the Arab World.”

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