Another Arab University Ranking is Out. But Is It Needed?
The most recent list of top Arab universities, out this week, includes some of the same names that graced previous findings by other rankings companies. But some education experts question whether anyone should pay attention.
QS World University Rankings released what they believe to be the 100 best universities in the region on June 10th. The top five are:
- King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals (Saudi Arabia)
- American University of Beirut
- King Saud University (Saudi Arabia)
- King Abdulaziz University (Saudi Arabia)
- The American University in Cairo
The American University of Beirut and King Abdulaziz University also placed in the top five of the other two major rankings by Times Higher Education (THE) and U.S. News & World Report. But there remain discrepancies between the companies—for example the Lebanese American University came in second place according to THE, 52nd by U.S. News and in 15th position according to QS.
While Saudi Arabia dominates the top five of the QS rankings, the top 15 show a more varied geographical origin, with universities from the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Qatar.
In contrast to THE, which weighted the research prowess of universities heavily, QS included more variables. Academic reputation was the most influential metric in its analysis, accounting for up to 30 percent of an institution’s score. Academic reputation was gauged by the response to surveys sent to academics in which QS asked them to name the institution they think is producing the best scholarly work.
The second most influential measurement was reputation among employers. A similar survey was sent to companies, asking them which universities produce the best graduates. The responses to that survey were weighted at 20 percent.
QS included other metrics, such as the ratio of faculty members to students and the number of academic papers produced per faculty member. The company was hoping to include the number of Arabic academic citations, but failed to find a reliable data source.
QS decided to give more weight to employer reputation than it has for other regions it has previously ranked. “It was partly because the unemployment rate in the Middle East is so high,” explains John O’Leary, who is a member of the QS advisory board. “But it was also because the response rate to the employer survey was high.”
Others think that dependence on surveys is a major weakness of the QS rankings and enough to question whether they are meaningful. “I have no confidence in QS rankings,” says Philip Altbach, the director of Boston College’s Center for International Higher Education.
“The more you rely on reputational ranking, the more unreliable you are,” says Altbach, “And QS is the king of reputation-based metrics.”
He explained that survey participants could be biased in favor of an institution they have a connection with. Graduates and professors at any institution are unlikely to name a rival institution as better than theirs, says Altbach.
QS says that the Academic Reputation Index is the component of its rankings that “attracts the greatest interest and scrutiny” and that sets it apart from other rankings.
The company ran into a problem that Arab higher education is notorious for: Many institutions either do not have data or do not give it out. O’Leary adds that many universities were not able to provide the information to be considered in the QS rankings. “Only 194 had enough data to be evaluated and 100 were included,” he says.
The secretary general of the Association of Arab Universities, Sultan T. Abu-Orabi, thinks that some universities in the region may choose not to supply data to QS because they believe the ranking of universities has become too much of a business.
“It is commercialized and that’s dangerous because many universities would like to participate but don’t because of this,” says Abu-Orabi. His association is considering the development of its own rankings.
The QS rankings include an additional “QS stars” category, which evaluates universities in more detail using 12 variables. But an institution has to pay a fee to be appraised with QS stars. O’Leary says that participation in the stars does not affect the overall placement of a university in the top 100 ranking.
Altbach worries that universities that want to move up the rankings may be less concerned with teaching quality because it isn’t considered by the evaluations, chiefly because no one has come up with a suitable means of measuring it yet. And quality teaching is what many education experts say Arab higher education needs.
“Larger and wealthier countries like Saudi Arabia need research-driven universities to be part of the knowledge economy,” says Altbach, “but poorer countries like Yemen shouldn’t focus on rankings because they distract from non-metric services like teaching.”