University rankings: made-to-measure metrics to suit local fashions

A summit in Qatar is a chance to determine the meaning of excellence in the Middle East and North Africa, says Cesar Wazen

February 19, 2015

Over the past few months, the Middle East and North Africa region has been in the spotlight quite frequently for a different and more conspicuous reason than the extremism of Islamic State, thank goodness for that.

Yes indeed, in this part of the world we also care about quality of life, entertainment and food.

It is well known that Asian families sometimes prioritise their kids’ education over their daily survival needs. Middle Easterners and North Africans are the same and, despite all the worries in the region, most important of which is surviving the many conflicts we go through, we do care about the quality of our education and the ranking of our institutions.

Many of us have heard or read about university presidents from different continents offering reassurances that they will not pursue certain strategies or policies just to enhance their institution’s position in university rankings.

But it remains the case that even the most prestigious global institutions have their eyes set on rankings.

We used to pay attention to Nobel prizes to learn about innovation in the sciences or the good Samaritans who worked hard for world peace. Now, some universities seem to use the prizes as recruitment opportunities instead. So why do higher education institutions feel the need to be hypocritical about this?

Why not tackle the issues that arise from the methodology of rankers? Some of those who compile rankings are willing to listen and understand.

The past few months have shown that some ranking agencies have embarked on efforts to adapt their methodology to regionspecific needs. Let us reach out to them and meet them halfway to explain, each country in its own terms, what is “excellence” for us. What are the region-specific factors behind the decisions that families and students make about where and what to study?

In the Middle East and North Africa region, the likelihood of a course leading to a good job and a good salary often trumps concerns about research performance.

The inaugural Times Higher Education MENA Universities Summit, to be held in Doha, Qatar, later this month could be an essential foundation in determining the meaning of excellence for institutions in the region. Is that wishful thinking? I wouldn’t bet on it.

The choice of the state of Qatar – which has played a pioneer role in the region both geopolitically and educationally, principally through the investment it has made in improving its educational system and its national university, Qatar University – is deliberate. The university will be co-hosting the event, attracting some of the leading institutions in the world to Qatar. The state is, of course, also notable for the Qatar Foundation’s Education City, where eight Western universities have branch campuses.

Credit is to be given to THE for the choice of the country and the venue, Qatar University, making sure that at least the summit is happening and at least there will be some high-level discussion of how to judge higher education excellence in the Middle East and North Africa region.


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