This year’s World University Rankings by Times Higher Education include only one Arab institution, the University of Marrakesh—an institution many academics outside Morocco may not have heard of—in a list of the world’s best 400 universities.
But the specialists who put together the list say they found growing strengths, especially in the Gulf region. Of the 900 universities analyzed for this year’s ranking, two Saudi institutions, King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals and King Saud University, were ranked in the 401- 450 band, at the front of the remaining universities that did not make it into the top 400.
Analysts placed a total of 12 institutions in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in the top 400. In addition to the one university in an Arab country, Morocco, they came from Turkey, Israel and Iran.
A lack of resources and the turmoil rocking the region have hindered improvements in tertiary education in a number of countries. Nonetheless, “We’re seeing very encouraging signs,” said Phil Baty, editor of the Times Higher Education World University Rankings in an interview. “Arab universities want to compete globally.”
Baty pointed to recent steps to introduce benchmarking as a prime example of ongoing Arab improvements. Benchmarking is a less competitive approach than ranking to measure and compare university performance. Benchmarking, which the World Bank and other organizations support, has universities share data and work to meet goals they set themselves.
The Times Higher Education World University Rankings are published two weeks after the release of the QS World University Rankings, another leading British-based ranking. Both started in 2004 and originally cooperated until they separated in 2009.
Both tables attempt to compare performance in the core missions of research universities: research, teaching, knowledge transfer and internationalization. But they use different methodologies and achieve different results. For example, QS does not include Marrakesh at all in its list of 863 top universities. There is still considerable overlap in the two tables. The QS list names King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals, American University of Beirut and King Saud University as the top three Arab institutions.
This is the 11th annual edition of both rankings. They appear to be having a big impact, as many universities adjust their practices in a desperate attempt to rise in the tables. But they have also come in for considerable criticism for basing their comparisons on narrow measures of higher-education performance. They ignore many institutions that may do an excellent job of training young people and meeting local needs, but that do little or no research.
When governments focus on the rankings of their nation’s universities the results are not always positive. National authorities “sometimes devote their money to a few institutions and neglect many others,” said Francisco Marmolejo, tertiary education coordinator at the World Bank, in an interview. “I’m afraid many institutions in the MENA region may be left out even if they are doing a great job and providing great services.”
The latest Times Higher Education list for the first time includes Marrakesh, also known as Cadi Ayyad University. It placed in 334th place, in large part due to its high score in the impact of its research.
“They don’t seem to have a very strong reputation,” said Baty, “but the hard data shows they are having an impact.”
Lacking strong reputations is a problem facing institutions across the Arab world. The region is something of a “black hole,” says Baty. The issue will be addressed in the Times Higher Education MENA universities summit scheduled for February 23 -24, 2015 in Doha, Qatar and co-hosted by Qatar University.
The conference, to be attended by a number of university presidents and senior higher education officials from the Arab countries, will feature discussion of proposals to improve data collection and measurement of the management and performance of the region’s universities. These metrics, which are often lacking, would include such basic data as the number of fulltime faculty members, an institution’s total budget, the numbers of foreign students and faculty members and graduation and employment outcomes.
In addition, said Baty, there will be discussion about finding “indicators that are more relevant to local conditions.” These could focus on an institution’s local economic and social impacts.
The strongest performing Middle Eastern country in this year’s Times Higher Education rankings is not an Arab country, but Turkey. In announcing this year’s list, Times Higher Education said, “Turkey had an outstanding year, increasing its representation in the top 200 from one university last year to four, thanks to extremely strong scores for research impact. The Middle East Technical University moved into 85th position to lead Turkey.”