Improved marks for universities after decades of failings

Every time a new global university ranking report is released, our typical reflex is to lament our failing higher education system that barely makes a blip on the world map.

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Every time a new global university ranking report is released, our typical reflex is to lament our failing higher education system that barely makes a blip on the world map. In leading university rankings generated by organisations like The Times Higher Education Supplement, Quacquarelli Symonds and China's Jiaotong University, a meagre five to seven Arab world universities makes it into the top 500 list. This has always disheartened those of us in the education sector.

Media commentators often try to blame the region's bleak higher education landscape on flawed social and economic policies that give little weight to human innovation. Advocates of this view find solace in the 2003 Arab Human Development Report that connected dismal regional education conditions to what it termed an "undemocratic political and social culture". By undemocratic, it meant a system that promoted rote learning and lacked critical thinking.

Critiques of higher education in the Arab world have some merit. But it is clear that much of the debate painfully ignores not only the peculiar history of regional universities, but also emerging long-term trends in higher education. I believe that these very trends will change the face of the global university landscape altogether. The launch of pioneering educational initiatives in the Gulf region in particular reinforce optimism that top global university rankings are no longer off limits to the region's higher education institutions.

In the words of Professor Judith Kinnear of Massey University, university rankings provide a "wonderful external acknowledgement of several university attributes, including the quality of its research, research training, teaching and employability". But not all is as it seems: university rankings can often be tainted by alarming problems. For example, between 2006 and 2007, Washington University in St Louis, Missouri fell from 48 to 161 because Quacquarelli Symond confused it with the University of Washington in Seattle.

The most serious problem with rankings, of course, arises from varying criteria that assess university standings around the world. And when it comes to universities outside the western hemisphere, the idiosyncrasies of our systems seem to be overlooked as all universities are subjected to a single standardised yardstick. This oblivion to the cultural and social context of university development in the Arab world, I believe, has given rise to speculation about why our institutions of higher education are not on par with global benchmarks. While Cairo University, the oldest modern university in this region, celebrates its centennial in four years, many of the leading world universities in the top rankings have been around for hundreds of years.

Of course, this region hosted universities during the golden ages of Arab-Islamic history in Baghdad, Cairo, Timbuktu and Tunis. But when it comes to modern academia, five centuries of Ottoman rule, combined with decades of colonial domination and post-independence underdevelopment have had a direct impact upon education. But the past should not hinder us from moving forward. In the last decade or so, major transitions in higher education in the Arab world, especially in the Gulf region, have given educators hope.

The main principle of higher education in the GCC has shifted towards not only critical and analytical thinking, but also towards the institution of research and development as key features of academic traditions. Here in the UAE, it is amazing to see how the Quacquarelli Symonds rankings of UAE University over the past three years has improved in line with its transition into a research university. The UAE University ranked 401 in 2008; 374 in 2009; and 372 in 2010.

But the Government has also played its part in regulating - and therefore benchmarking - both research and teaching. Across the UAE, the Commission for Academic Accreditation oversees higher education programmes offered by scores of government and private institutions. It's injected better standards into higher education. In Doha, the establishment of the Qatar Foundation in 1995 marked a significant development in taking education into a new frontier of excellence. Last year in Saudi Arabia, the launch of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology as a graduate-level research institution of higher education raised expectations for the region.

With the increasing globalisation of higher education, it is difficult to underestimate the implications of world university rankings for this region's educational system. But we should not forget the history of the region. In that light, we have little reason to panic. The future holds bright prospects indeed. Muhammad Ayish is a UAE-based media researcher and adviser