When exploring the data behind universities in the world’s emerging economies, it is easy to become preoccupied by the prominent (and well-documented) rise of China.
But this year’s data reveal another nation that is rapidly ascending the ranks: Egypt. While the north African country has not reached the dizzy heights of the Asian powerhouse by world standards, it is garnering more attention within the developing world.
Egypt has 19 universities in the 2019 Times Higher Education Emerging Economies University Rankings – up from nine in last year’s table – making it the seventh most-represented nation. It has overtaken Mexico, Chile, the Czech Republic, Thailand and Pakistan based on the number of ranked universities. Seven of its institutions feature in the top 200, up from just two last year.
At the top of the pile is Suez Canal University (SCU), which has leapfrogged many of its fellow Egyptian institutions to reach joint 114th place, up from the 251-300 band. Its scores for citation impact and knowledge transfer (industry income) both improved this year.
Sahar Ahmed Hassan El-Shatoury, associate professor of microbiology and head of the University International Ranking Unit at SCU, says that the institution has focused on improving its research performance by raising the awareness of top journals among academic staff, encouraging publications in such journals through financial awards, fostering international research collaborations and better funding research.
A recent survey of about 5,700 scholars across Africa found that an overwhelming majority of respondents said that a lack of funding was hampering their careers, with 45 per cent reporting that they had not received any research income in the past three years.
But over the past two years, El-Shatoury says, SCU has “established research funding with over 25 funding agencies”, including the National Natural Science Foundation of China and the US’ National Institutes of Health.
Meanwhile, SCU has attracted more industry income by developing a database for research grants and research supported by businesses and strengthening partnerships with sectors such as the food and pharmaceutical industries. El-Shatoury says that the institution received large donations to develop its new Egyptian-Chinese College for Applied Technology, which was launched last year.
Regarding Egypt’s higher education system as a whole, El-Shatoury observes that the country’s large youth population is its main advantage but adds that the nation will also need to address issues of outdated technology and inadequate international research collaboration if it is to make further progress.
Like China, Egypt may also be held back by issues around academic freedom.
The government is encouraging foreign universities to set up branch campuses in the country, but Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, professor in global thought and comparative philosophies at SOAS University of London, says that Egyptian authorities need to explain the 2016 murder of the University of Cambridge PhD student Giulio Regeni if they want this policy to succeed. Regeni, who had been conducting research on the country’s trade unions, disappeared in January 2016 and his body was found several days later.
“The University of Liverpool just announced that it will not proceed with plans to set up a campus in Egypt after criticisms from academics. This trend is likely to continue for UK universities,” he says.
Adib-Moghaddam adds that in the social sciences there is “an explicit censorship regime that makes it impossible to talk about sensitive topics such as the Muslim Brotherhood”.
“It is salutary that the Egyptian authorities are opening up the higher education sector, and academic dialogue should be encouraged. But at the same time, there needs to be more emphasis on human rights and academic freedom as indispensable norms for proper scholarship,” he says.
Malaysia is another country that has made significant gains this year, despite declines in higher education funding. It boasts a total of 11 institutions in the ranking, up from nine last year, including eight in the top 200. Nearly all of these have risen, including its flagship institution, the University of Malaya, which climbs nine places to enter the top 20 for the first time at joint 18th place.
The university’s scores for citation impact, teaching environment and international outlook all improved this year.
Awg Bulgiba Bin Awg Mahmud, professor in Malaya’s department of social and preventive medicine, says that since 2012, the university has “emphasised quality over quantity in its approach to research and has paid special attention to areas of strength in the university”.
“Extra funding was made available for research centres that had the potential to be world class. These strategies changed the mindset of its researchers and resulted in spectacular growth in its field-weighted citation impact,” he says, adding that Malaya is the only research university in Malaysia whose growth in field-weighted citation impact outpaced the growth in number of publications over the past five years.
On the teaching front, Malaya has established a Curriculum Development Centre, ramped up training for academic staff, launched nearly 30 interactive learning spaces, and bolstered online learning. Meanwhile, the creation of a new associate vice-chancellor (international) post in 2015 and an international relations office two years later has helped the university to focus its international efforts and vastly improve its international outlook, Awg Bulgiba says.
Of course, rankings are a zero-sum game, and as Malaysia and Egypt have risen, other nations have stagnated and in some cases fallen backwards.
Brazil is a prime example; 17 of its 36 representatives have declined, including its two leading universities. The University of São Paulo drops one place to 15th, its lowest position ever, while the University of Campinas slips seven places to joint 40th.
Justin Axel-Berg, associate researcher in higher education policy at the University of São Paulo, says that in terms of absolute numbers, Brazil’s universities are still “growing and improving”, but “the issue is that they are falling behind a growing [and increasingly] competitive group [of universities], particularly from China”.
“Without ambitious investment and strategic vision, Brazilian universities are relying heavily on their own internal qualities, rather than benefiting from a supportive public policy environment,” he says, adding that the country’s higher education system has been “suffering the effects of brutal austerity for several years”.
Luis Lamb, professor and vice-president for research at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), says that to “keep up with a challenging research market, in which Chinese and US universities are highly funded and supported by their governments”, Brazilian universities “have to fight hard to convince our own country that we should go in the same direction”.
The recent election of Jair Bolsonaro as Brazil’s president also means that universities are “living under uncertainty”, Lamb says.
“We all hope the government sees the strategic economic role of the public research universities. Research universities have a direct impact on the economy, [especially] in a knowledge-based economy, in which science is translated into products faster than ever,” he says.
Despite these challenges, UFRGS is among a handful of Brazilian universities that have risen this year; the institution is ranked joint 119th, up from the 201-250 band, thanks to improvements in its scores for citation impact, research environment and industry income.
Lamb says that of the 100 most-cited Brazilian science papers of all time, 10 are co-authored by researchers from UFRGS, based on Elsevier’s Scopus database. One of these contributed to the discovery of giant magnetoresistance, work that was recognised with the 2007 Nobel Prize in Physics, he adds.
“We also have a long history of international cooperation with leading universities from Europe and North America and a policy of hiring talented young researchers who become full members of staff,” he says.
Elsewhere in the BRICS countries (the major emerging economic powerhouses of Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), the African member has seen a mixed performance. While South Africa’s top three representatives have remained stable or risen and the country boasts one university making its debut, its remaining five institutions have declined.
Stellenbosch University is the country’s top riser, climbing 14 places to 24th. Like several other prominent climbers in the table, its citation impact and industry income scores improved this year.
However, as in Brazil, one of the biggest challenges for South Africa’s higher education sector is “financial sustainability”, according to Eugene Cloete, vice-rector of research, innovation and postgraduate studies at Stellenbosch.
While the government scrapped tuition fees for the majority of students in 2018 in an effort to widen access to higher education, “questions remain about the ability of the state to fund this intervention in the long run”, he says.
There are also concerns about “the practical roll-out of the system” as well as worries that “not all students in need of financial support manage to secure state funding” and that those who do “still experience a shortfall”.
Meanwhile, there is also less research funding up for grabs from South Africa’s National Research Foundation, he adds.
“We will have to find creative solutions,” Cloete says. “On the one hand, we must generate more income ourselves. And on the other hand, we will have to build even stronger partnerships with industry, alumni and donors.”