The fact that there are very few of this region’s universities in the Times Higher Education’s rankings of the world’s top 400 universities is not entirely surprising. The higher education systems in some parts of the Middle East and North Africa are relatively young and many countries in this region – with the notable exceptions of Turkey, Morocco and Israel who all made it onto the list – have yet to develop institutions that can compete in all the required criteria.
As The National reported yesterday, Phil Baty, head of Times rankings, said during a meeting organised by UAE University and Times Higher Education, that ranking Middle Eastern and North African universities according to world's standards is tricky. He said there is a need to have a regional university ranking system designed around the unique nature of the region's higher education system.
The proposal seems sound. A regional ranking system could provide a more even playing field for universities to compete among each other and create an environment that fosters transparency and collaboration. At the moment, most institutions provide little data about their performance. A regional rating would help in motivating more institutions to collect information and design strategies around this data. Such a system should also take into consideration some important factors, such as language, since the world ranking system does not pay enough attention to non-English instructing and research institutions – which works against many strong Arabic institutions in the region.
But we also need to keep in mind that regional universities are not all the same and can differ even within one country. In the UAE, for example, some universities, such as UAEU, have undergraduate, graduate, postgraduate and research programmes. Others are branch campuses that are limited to undergraduate studies. It is simply unfair to make absolute comparisons between an institution in a foreign country with the branch campus it operates here.
Across the region, universities vary, and even though a regional ranking system is welcome, it needs to be designed carefully.