UAE universities improved their positions in the world rankings because of the strength of their research, a conference heard on Tuesday.
Tertiary institutions in the Emirates have improved in research quality and reputation, said Phil Baty, chief knowledge officer at Times Higher Education.
He spoke at the International Forum on Higher Education and Research organised by the Ministry of Education.
“The UAE has had a strong year in university rankings,” he said.
“Not only have the Emirates' universities improved their research productivity, producing more research papers in the leading journals, but they have also ensured that the extra quantity of research output is matched by a growing quality.”
Mr Baty said the UAE had improved scores for the impact of its research, which is the largest single performance indicator in the world rankings, and a key indicator of the creation and dissemination of new knowledge.
The education expert said there were between 20,000 and 30,000 universities around the world. Five institutions in the UAE had reached the top 1,000 rank this year.
Dr Arif Al Hammadi, executive vice president at Khalifa University, said universities in the Emirates had broken all records and moved up in the rankings in a short time.
“We have moved very fast and our ambition is to reach the top 100,” Dr Al Hammadi said.
He said the introduction of master's and other postgraduate programmes in the UAE had proven a tipping point.
UAE University ranked in the top 350 institutions this year while Khalifa University was in the top 400, according to the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2021.
The University of Sharjah placed among the best 800 universities, while American University of Sharjah and Zayed University were among the top 1,000 globally.
Saudi Arabia's King Abdulaziz University was the Mena region's top institution.
Arab universities can further benefit if they capitalise on the shifting global landscape of education, Mr Baty said.
"We’ve been seeing a major improvement in the performance of East Asian universities in the rankings in recent years, especially from China," he said.
"We are seeing a significant tipping of power from the West to the East, particularly towards East Asia.
"This does not necessarily mean that other, more traditionally strong nations like the US and UK have actually declined – they’ve just lost some ground relative to the changing world."
Universities in Asia climbed world rankings, while those in the Western world dropped.
Between 2016 and 2021, the number of European universities in the top 200 globally has dropped steadily. In 2016, more than 100 universities from the region were ranked in the top 200 but this year, fewer than 100 institutions made the list, said Mr Baty.
Mainland China's Tsinghua University became the first Asian university to break into the top 20 list in the 2021 rankings.
Data from Education Insight, a research consultancy focusing on international higher education, showed North America and Western Europe’s share of international students dropped from 64 per cent in 1998 to 52 per cent in 2017.
Mr Baty said the rise of new research and higher education powerhouses would be good news for the global higher education community.
It could help tackle challenges such as health crises and climate change.
He said the Middle East was well placed to lead the way on uniting universities globally to address key global challenges outlined through the Sustainable Development Goals – particularly climate action, renewable energy, and clean water.
The education expert said universities in the Middle East would have the opportunity to exploit the geopolitical shift.
"The question is whether the Middle East, which is already highly collaborative across national borders in its research activity, can form a powerful bridge between East and West, and benefit from the growing talent base and research investment in the East while maintaining its links to the West," said Mr Baty.