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Arab World Moving Up in Global University Rankings

The Times Higher Education released a list this week of what it believes to be the best 801 universities in the world.

The top ten positions are dominated by familiar institutions in the United Kingdom and United States, but changes to the data source for some of the metrics has allowed more Arab universities to shine through.

While they may not occupy high up positions, the United Arab Emirates University and the American University of Sharjah were placed in the 501-600 and 601-800 bands respectively—after the top 200 positions, Times Higher Education groups universities into these broader categories. This marks the first time the UAE has seen any of its universities on the list.

Several other Arab countries also made the cut for the first time this year, including Jordan, Qatar, Lebanon, Morocco, Oman and Saudi Arabia. The best performer in the region was Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz University, which fell into the 251-300 category.

Egypt was mentioned again for the first time since 2012, when Alexandria University was placed in the 301-350 band. Egypt can boast three universities in today’s rankings, although the American University in Cairo was not included.

Saudi ArabiaKing Abdulaziz University251-300
Saudi ArabiaKing Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals501-600
Saudi ArabiaKing Saud University501-600
UAEUnited Arab Emirates University501-600
LebanonAmerican University of Beirut501-600
JordanUniversity of Jordan601-800
JordanJordan University of Science and Technology601-800
QatarQatar University601-800
MoroccoUniversity of Marrakech Cadi Ayyad601-800
UAEAmerican University of Sharjah601-800
EgyptAlexandria University601-800
EgyptCairo University601-800
EgyptSuez Canal University601-800
OmanSultan Qaboos University601-800

Despite the emergence of Arab institutions onto the scene, one observer in the region doubts the worth of the global rankings and instead pays more attention to the MENA region specific rankings. Another expert advocated ignoring them altogether.

The rankings are the result of 13 metrics, which are weighted differently and are designed to evaluate a university’s teaching, international activity, research, and interactions with industry.

This year Times Higher Education has stopped using Thomson Reuters’ Web of Science database to assess university research. It’s still using the number of papers published per researcher and the number of times a paper is referenced by other scholars as the way to gauge research prowess. But it has changed the data provider and that’s made a sizable difference to the rankings.

“This year we’ve switched to Elsevier Scopus,” explains Times Higher Education’s editor John Gill, “It’s bigger and less focused on elite English language papers. We think it’s giving us a more global and richer feel of things.”

The number of universities that are ranked by Gill’s publication has also doubled.

Gill says it’s thanks to these two changes that Arab universities are finding themselves listed this year. Scopus gives researchers in the region who publish in Arabic or French more opportunity to contribute to their university’s ranking, he explains.

Arab universities have been previously mentioned by global rankings conducted by other agencies, such as QS Top Universities and Shanghai Ranking. The methodology varies from agency to agency, with QS and Shanghai using fewer metrics and weighting them differently, which means the results also differ.

King Abdulaziz University, for example, ranks 303rd on the QS list. But it’s found in the 151-200 band according to Shanghai.

Sultan Abu-Orabi, the secretary general of the Association of Arab Universities, says the results show how far higher education in parts of the Arab world has come, but he adds that they also highlight how much is yet to be achieved. “I congratulate the UAE for its achievement. I’m not surprised to see three Saudi universities on the list either,” he says. “They are doing a great job and spending a lot of money on research.”

But he cautioned that universities in the Arab world shouldn’t get caught up in rankings. “We shouldn’t work and aim for the ranking itself,” he says. “We should concentrate on research and bringing in more international staff and students.”

The regional rankings are more helpful, says Abu-Orabi, given the continued disparity between Western and Arab university performance.

Other observers are more skeptical. Sari Hanafi, a sociologist who studies the state of research in the Arab world, has called the ranking industry a “farce.” He says that many of the journals included in the Elsevier Scopus database come from publishers of questionable quality. He worries that some of the published papers, which are taken into account by rankings that use Scopus, do not represent strong scholarship.

Hanafi also says that rankings need to be taken with a pinch of salt because, some such as QS, offer consultancy services to universities to help them climb the scale. “University rankings should be taken for what they are: commercial activities,” he wrote in an email to Al-Fanar Media.

In the end, Gill says that improving universities is exactly Times Higher Education’s aim when it comes to the rankings. “We take it very seriously. Our raison d’être is to help universities understand where they’re doing well and where they have room for improvement,” he says. “By improving on research, a university will naturally move up in the rankings.”


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