As this year’s rankings make clear, Saudi universities are moving up while many institutions in the Levant and the Maghreb barely register.
But behind that pattern is a deeper debate about the usefulness of the rankings themselves, the reliability of Arab higher-education data, the need for many Arab universities to connect with other research institutions, and the focus of the rankings on scientific research.
The rise of Saudi Arabian institutions in the rankings is due only to their performance in science—not the social sciences or humanities that demand the sort of inquiry and freedom of expression that Saudi society often does not tolerate.
Scholars from the Levant are proud of their independence and argue that it is as important as the rankings. In Lebanon, says Ramez Maluf, an associate professor in communications at the University of Balamand, “I can be open in class about the fact that I’m an atheist. I can teach Darwin in my classes.”
“Similarly, if I’m an architecture professor, I should be free to criticize the sultan’s palace. This freedom has been part of the idea of a university since the first in Padua and Bologna.”
However, even if Saudi Arabian institutions have not ranked well for liberal arts, neither have other institutions in the Middle East and North Africa. While the American Universities in Beirut, Cairo and Sharjah made it into the QS rankings’ top 800, they did not rate well in specific disciplines.
That said, there was one exception: The American University of Sharjah was ranked among the top 150 institutions for English language and literature.
All in all, the American University of Sharjah, like the rest of the Gulf universities, finished lower than the Saudi institutions in the QS rankings. But it downplays the significance of the metrics.
“When I was a president of an university in the United States, I refused to participate in the rankings,” says Thomas Hochstettler, the American University of Sharjah’s acting chancellor. “They tend to be beauty contests.”
“If there was a ranking that could really provide information to parents about where best to send their children, I would be for that.”
Institutions elsewhere in the Arab world finished down or out of the rankings. In Egypt, which has the longest research tradition in the region, only the American University in Cairo, Cairo University, and Al-Azhar University made the QS rankings. They finished below the Saudis in the metric, which positions itself as a tool that helps parents and potential students decide on a university. They were missing altogether from the research-oriented Shanghai Jiao Tong and the Times Higher Education rankings, often viewed as a more of a policymaking tool. And, even in the QS rankings, all three Egyptian universities continued to decline, year-on-year.
Despite being a brand name famous throughout the Islamic world and considering international expansion, Al-Azhar, one of the oldest universities still in operation, did poorly in the rankings.
Scholars there admit the university should be doing better. They blame the declining international performance on the lack of resources, aging technology and an inability to publish in English. Turning these factors around will take time, they say.
“We are working slowly to accomplish all that,” says Mohamed Osman, the dean of economics. “But with the lack of financial resources, it makes the process very slow.”
Education scholars point to the Maghreb as a region whose research performance also needs improvement. Institutions in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco are absent from the rankings.
Universities in the Maghreb argue that they emphasize training elite cadres over research, in the Francophone tradition. Yet they concede rankings are taken very seriously at their universities.
“We’ve embarked on several initiatives to improve our ranking [since 2010],” wrote Ahmed Legrouri, vice president for academic affairs at Al Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, in an e-mail. Al Akhawayn is a liberal arts institution established in 1995 that teaches in English. “We’re continually increasing our research budget,” adds Legrouri. “We have established a fund for innovation, [and] increased support for those participating in international conferences.”
Administrators in the Levant and the Maghreb doubt their ability to match the funds that the Saudis have committed to higher education – and they envy the international focus of Saudi higher-education institutions.
“It’s true that two or three Saudi universities often take the top spots in rankings of the Arab world,” Legrouri says. “That is due to their huge resources, particularly in scientific research, and their openness internationally.”
Indeed, one key lesson that emerges from an analysis of Arab university placement in the rankings is that researchers at Arab universities need to be able to attend international meetings and connect with research partners outside their institutions if the institutions want to improve their rankings position.
“Being insular is a mistake. Participating in the global marketplace is the way to go,” says Ben Wildavsky, the director of higher education studies at State University of New York’s Rockefeller Institute, who once oversaw the leading ranking in the United States, the U.S. News & World Report College Rankings.
The reputational component of the rankings – weighted at 30 percent of the Times Higher Education score and 40 percent of the QS score for instance – can also be increased by international partnerships, which can burnish an institution’s global reputation. The Times Higher Education rankings also try to measure “international outlook,” measuring researchers’ interaction with their peers.
International or not, research partnerships boost rankings scores. All of the major rankings companies analyse databases of research citations, and from these analyses emerges an important pattern.
“Where a university collaborates on a piece of research with another university, even in the same country, they attract 50 percent more citations than if they publish on their own,” says Ben Sowter, the head of the QS Intelligence Unit, which compiles the rankings.
“If they collaborate internationally, they attract 100 percent more citations than doing it on their own. The key to international competitiveness is increasing the number, productivity and effectiveness of research collaborations.”
More broadly, many in the Arab world criticize the rankings’ perceived cultural and developmental bias: The fact is that richer, Western institutions dominate global rankings, which privilege international cooperation over regional research partnerships.
And some say that although an objective regional benchmarking of universities would be useful, the Middle East and North African region is simply not ready for a ranking at present. A Carnegie Corporation-supported study into the region’s universities last year found that most MENA universities do not have the ability to supply accurate data on the areas that rankings companies use to calculate their metrics.
“One of the big takeaways from our study was that there are severe gaps in the data being gathered across institutions,” says Rajika Bhandari, at the Institution of International Education, who coauthored the Carnegie study. “There was fairly scant data around research activity. We also found that faculty data was scant across the board.”
The international rankings companies report the opposite. They insist that data quality and response rates are improving in the region.
All the same, critics question the usefulness of rankings for institutions and policymakers. Some argue that rankings companies may have side-line consulting, data analysis, and advertising businesses that make the would-be unbiased judges interested players. And not withstanding potential conflicts of interest, many say the veneer of objectivity the rankings have is just that—a veneer.
“Rankings should not be the basis on which you make decisions. They’re flawed: The data is flawed,” says Ellen Hazelkorn, from the Dublin Institute of Technology, who regularly advises governments on the utility of rankings.
Academics in the region say the rankings are just one tool to measure their progress. “We are not working for the ranking,” says Saeed Alshamrani, whose education department was recently crowned the best in the Arab world by QS. “It’s not that hard to publish in some Arabic journals with ideas that are 10 or 15 years old. The rankings mean that we are trying to publish in good journals…to compete with others.”
Mohamed Abdelbaky in Cairo contributed reporting. This article is part of a package: See also “How Saudi Universities Rose in the Global Rankings.”