ARAB WORLD: Academic freedom key to being world class

To many educators in the Arab world it may seem ironic, indeed bewildering, that the universities enjoying the highest ranking are in Saudi Arabia, arguably the most conservative state in the region. In almost every ranking of universities, King Saud University and King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals rank first and second respectively. In some rankings, Saudi Arabian institutions claim the first four or five positions.

Older and arguably more prestigious universities operating in a far more liberal environment, such as the American University of Beirut (AUB) and Cairo University, tend to rank well behind Saudi universities. In the most recent ranking by CybermetricsLab, AUB and Cairo University rank 6th and 8th respectively, with Saudi institutions claiming the first five spots.

But do these rankings mean anything? Is the methodology used in developing the rankings reliable? The answer is a guarded yes and no.

Most of the rankings of Arab universities are based on their web visibility. Some ranking agencies, such as the Spanish-based CybermetricsLab, do a more thorough job and look at the quality of entering students, faculty salaries and student-to-faculty ratios. However, none go beyond that. Still, these are telling criteria.

What the rankings do not take into consideration are such things as employment records of graduating students, average salaries of alumni, retention, SAT scores, comparative admissions requirements, research grants and other criteria normally used when comparisons are made among institutions in a single country as in, for example, the United States or Britain.

In a region as wide as the Arab World, it would be impossible and very likely meaningless to take these criteria into consideration, because universities operate in different markets, where salaries are not commensurable, school systems differ considerably and institutions cater to different student populations, often in different languages - Arabic, English and even French in the Maghreb or in Lebanon.

Very few Arab students entertain the idea of moving to another country to attend university, in contrast to the United States or Britain, where it is very common for students to relocate to another state or region for tertiary education.

Indeed, an indication of the limitations of rankings is the fact that the first spots are claimed by institutions in countries where freedom of expression is the most limited.

Of the first 10 spots in CybermetricLab, six are claimed by universities in Saudi Arabia, two in Egypt and one each in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories. That could very well reflect a bias in the rankings in favour of technical disciplines such as engineering, medicine or business studies.

That bias allows for universities where technical studies are of quality, such as King Saud University and King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, to claim top positions.

While students at these institutions may be receiving a good professional education, they are not enjoying the whole university experience. What they are not getting, in the words of the 19th-century Islamic reformer Jamal Al Deen Al Afghani, is a good dose of philosophy, what he called falsafa, philosophy or critical thinking.

"If a community does not have philosophy," wrote Al Afghani 100 years ago, "and all the individuals of that community are learned in the sciences with particular subjects, those sciences could not last in that community for long. That community without the spirit of philosophy could not deduce conclusions from these sciences."

Recently some educators, both at the secondary and tertiary level, have scoffed at the importance of critical thinking, or the ability for faculty to assess it or to nurture it.

However, the general consensus remains, rightly so, that to encourage the aptitude, the desire, the pleasure of questioning accepted knowledge - and the knowledgeable - is a good thing. Only an educated mind can entertain a thought, mull it over, and then decide whether to accept or reject it, to paraphrase Aristotle.

At truly reputable universities architecture professors, say, must be able to deride the palace of the ruler or the temple named after him. An economist should be able to criticise the national budget and the fiscal policies of the government and give examples of financial mismanagement without fear of repercussions. A fine arts professor must be able to express and explore sensualities, and a theatre instructor must take pride in transgressing social mores.

The latitude of freedom required by professors of philosophy, religion, history and political sciences is even much greater. They may want to question the nation's traditions, or the wisdom of its wise men, or the official interpretation of history, or the country's political system.

Where these freedoms do not exist, university education is imperfect.

If universities in the Arab World want to enjoy high international rankings, of the right kind, they must make freedom of thought and expression a priority for their faculty and students. Otherwise, all the money governments may pour into beautiful campuses, facilities and equipment, in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE or elsewhere, will fail to turn their institutions into truly world-class centres of education - whatever the internet rankings might say.

It is the job of universities to promote and encourage free and creative thinking and thoughtful governments should recognise this fact. Hopefully, the radical political changes taking place in the Arab world will take notice of this fact.

* Ramez Maluf is an associate professor at the Lebanese American University. A shorter version of this article first appeared in Dubai's Gulf News on 20 July 2011.