Universities in the UAE have held their own in an international league table that has seen many Middle Eastern countries substantially increase their presence.
Four institutions from the Emirates are included in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2019, the same number as in the 2018 version, despite a significant overall increase in the number of universities included.
More than 1,250 of the world’s best higher education institutions, up from just over 1,100 last year, are included in the index, ranked on teaching, research, citation index, income from industry and international outlook.
All four UAE universities listed very highly for their international links, with the top-ranked among them being Khalifa University, which fell in the group of institutions ranked 301 to 350.
Formed through the merger of the original Khalifa University with the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology and the Petroleum Institute Abu Dhabi, the centre achieved a perfect score of 100 for securing income from industry. It also scored highly for its international outlook (96.4) and citations (65.3), and its research score, at 29.1, is more than half as much again as last year. Its lowest score was for teaching, at 25.3.
“The UAE has had a relatively stable position overall, but its a welcome sign that its flagship university has progressed,” said Ellie Bothwell, THE’s rankings editor.
In the region, she said there had been “a real effort around citation impact”, which refers to the number of times that academic papers by researchers at institutions are referenced in later research.
“The issues that maybe need to be address are in the research environment, creating a stable environment for research,” said Ms Bothwell.
UAE University in Al Ain remains the second most highly-ranked university in the Emirates, but has moved up significantly, occupying the 351 to 400 category this year, compared to 501 to 600 last year. Its international outlook and citations scores are about the same as those of Khalifa University, but it scores much lower for research and industry income.
In January this year, UAE University achieved an improvement in its position in another global university ranking – the QS World University Rankings 2019. It rose up 40 places to 350.
By contrast, the American University of Sharjah, last year ranked between 601 and 800, has moved down the THE World University Rankings table to now occupy the 801 to 1,000 category; however, its scores in three of the index’s five metrics actually improved, so its fall into a lower category indicates that other institutions have improved faster.
The University of Sharjah is also in the 801 to 1,000 grouping in the 2019 index, as it was last year. It too improved in three of the five variables.
In the Gulf, Saudi Arabia is the best-represented country, with six universities ranking, up from five last year/. Kuwait, Oman and Qatar retain one university each.
Some other Arab nations have significantly increased their representation, although this partly reflects the fact that the total number of universities listed has gone up.
There are now 19 Egyptian universities, up from nine, and six from Algeria, compared to one in 2018.
Iraq is represented for the first time since the index’s 2004 launch through the University of Baghdad, while Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia increased their numbers.
Iran is the best-represented Middle Eastern country with 29 institutions, significantly up on last year’s figure of 18.
Vicky Lewis, who carries out higher education consultancy internationally through her own UK-based company, indicated that the Middle East’s improved showing reflected the importance many governments in the region now give to higher education.
“It’s clear that certain Middle East governments have invested incredibly heavily in building capability and drawing on international expertise in helping build their own higher education systems and that it looks set to continue,” she said.
She suggested that positions on such global league tables have more than just prestige value.
“It will be part of a broad national strategy to reposition a country as being a knowledge economy in place of whatever it traditionally relied on as its economic motor,” said Ms Lewis.
'Stagnation' threatens world's top universities
Western universities have been warned by Times Higher Education that isolationism and stagnation could affect their strength in rankings in future.
While British and in particular American universities dominate the upper reaches of THE's Global University Rankings, the index reflects the growth in Chinese representation, with other emerging economies looking to mirror this success.
"Traditional power regions like the US, Europe and Australia are experiencing the effects of deepening cuts and creeping isolationism," said Phil Baty, THE's editorial director for global rankings.
“Maintaining current standards of excellence on those terms is unsustainable, and – amid mounting global competition – we again see signs of stagnation and modest decline among established strongholds.”
The University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge retain first and second places respectively, followed by Stanford University in the US.
Six of the remaining top 10 institutions are American and one is British.
The highest-ranked Asian institution is Tsinghua University in Beijing, which occupies 22nd spot. Better global partnerships and efforts to attract top people from around the world are helping the top Chinese universities.
Ellie Bothwell, THE's rankings editor, said China's strategy was to invest heavily in a small number of institutions.
This is in contrast with some other countries, such as the Netherlands, where government policy is more concerned with consistency between institutions.
New York University, which has a large campus in Abu Dhabi, remains 27th in the index.
Ms Bothwell said the THE World University Rankings, more than some other indices, tried to focus on more than an institution's research output by giving weight also to factors such as international outlook and knowledge transfer.
“We’re aiming to look at all the missions of a university to judge them, rather than just research productivity,” she said.
An improved position on the list can, depending on the country in which an institution is based, offer a variety of benefits.
“It can definitely help boost international research collaboration. Some say, ‘We want to collaborate with a top-200 university’,” Ms Bothwell said.
“There are several governments that have schemes where they provide more funding to universities with higher ranks, and certain students are able to get government scholarships to go to universities that are highly ranked.”
But she cautioned observers not to read too much into one year’s results, saying that small movements up or down by an institution were less informative than consistent improvements or declines.