How best to rank universities in the Middle East and North Africa?

Any tables must reflect the nuances of the region, says Mohamed Salem

January 29, 2016
Middle East map

Come to our MENA Universities Summit from 2 to 4 February 2016

With the Times Higher Education MENA Universities Summit set to take place soon, the prospect of a MENA (Middle East and North Africa) University Ranking is a hot topic of discussion throughout the higher education sector here in the UAE, one of the Middle East’s fastest growing education hubs.

On the whole, I think I am not alone in expressing my thoughts that it is vital for the higher education sector in the region to engage with the current international trends for performance monitoring that have been developed by globally respected organisations such as THE.

The introduction of a MENA-specific ranking would provide the region with a great opportunity to help guide and drive effective plans at a strategic level, which will be a significant aid in developing a relatively young higher education sector. It could have a great impact on the advancement of teaching methods and ultimately on increasing graduates’ employability and mobility around the world.

At a higher level, it would also help governments to establish well-guided strategies for research funding – a key factor for countries such as the UAE that are now producing serious pockets of research excellence and are eager to do more.

Read more: Top 15 universities in the Arab world announced

However, because of the age of the higher education sector in the region, a simplistic focus on ranking may endanger the ability of many institutions to deliver on their promised visions and missions as many current ranking methodologies do not always take into account the level of maturity and missions of institutions here in the Middle East in comparison with universities elsewhere in the world.  A well-thought-out ranking system would help us to identify necessary improvements and to quantify desired (incremental) levels of performance at a strategic management level.

For example, when the University of Wollongong in Dubai was first established 23 years ago, the initial focus was simply on teaching business and information technology courses to those living and working in the emirate – that was the need of the country at the time. As the UAE has grown and evolved at a rapid rate, so has the vision of the university. We now offer more than 25 different undergraduate and postgraduate courses, alongside well-respected higher degrees of research (PhD and DBA) courses, with a growing focus on research tailored to help the UAE fulfil its ambitions.

Of course, while I wholly welcome a MENA-specific ranking system, there are going to be a number of challenges to its introduction. Benchmarking will be harder at the beginning – in particular with regard to the availability of accurate data on important factors such as graduate employability statistics, for example.

Sustainable scientific research with measurable impact will potentially be the major hurdle for universities in the region as the whole culture of research and research funding by both public and private sectors is still in an early stage. There will also be a need to develop new ways to recognise research impact in areas of study that are specific to the region and that are in a language other than English, such as Arabic.

However, that being said, I am greatly optimistic that these challenges can be overcome and that a MENA ranking system would further fuel the exciting quest for knowledge that we are experiencing in the region and help us to put our mark on the global higher education map.

Mohamed Salem, president of the University of Wollongong in Dubai, is speaking at the THE MENA Universities Summit in February.

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