Arab nations face mobility and research obstacles without rankings

The Arab world urgently needs a ranking and classification system for its universities, a pilot study covering seven countries concludes.

While the number of global and country-level rankings systems continues to expand, regional classification and assessment of higher education institutions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) has not yet been developed.

Consequently, researchers and students are unable to make informed choices in selecting institutions to work with or at, while cooperation among universities regionally and internationally is being hampered.

The rapid expansion of higher education in the region as new domestic institutions and branch campuses of overseas institutions emerge has underlined the need for a classification system, say Rajika Bhandari and Adnan El-Amine, authors of the study for the New York-based Institute of International Education (IIE).

The report, Higher Education Classification in the Middle East and North Africa: A pilot study, is supported by the Carnegie Corporation and produced in partnership with the Lebanese Association of Educational Studies in Beirut.

It has laid the groundwork for a such a system. “There is no standardised framework for understanding the region's institutions,” said Bhandari, deputy vice president of research and evaluation at the IIE and the lead researcher for the study, in a press statement.

“Having more comparable information such as that provided by our study will lead to a deeper and more transparent understanding of the wide range of institutions in the Arab world and how best to engage with them at a national, regional and global level.”

The lack of an Arab ranking system has made it more difficult for researchers and research agencies to select reliable higher education institutions in the region. It has limited the prospects of networking, exchange, mobility and cooperation with institutions of similar profiles and characteristics, the authors say.

It has prevented students from making better informed choices regarding their selection of fields of study and subsequent careers.

For policy-makers, it has led to frustrated initiatives for cooperation among institutions regionally and internationally and has created confusion in relation to transferability of students, faculty mobility and the establishment of quality standards and regional frameworks for quality assurance.

And it has limited research funding from industry and university-industry partnerships.

“Without a clear understanding of different types of institutions and their features, higher education institutions are often mischaracterised and the distinction between research-oriented and teaching-oriented institutions is not always evident,” the authors said.

The pilot study was set up to develop a system of classifying higher education institutions in the region.

The goals of this new classification model were to:

• Help strengthen MENA institutions locally by providing benchmarks and key indicators on which institutions can measure and track their growth and compare themselves to similar institutions.
• Generate international interest in the region’s institutions, leading to deeper linkages between MENA higher education institutions and other institutions around the world to facilitate knowledge sharing, research collaboration, and institutional capacity building.
• Provide critical institutional-level information and data that prospective students from the MENA region or from other parts of the world can use to select a higher education institution.

The pilot study was initiated in May 2009 and surveyed more than 300 higher education institutions in seven pilot countries: Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and the United Arab Emirates. Egypt was originally included in the study but data were ultimately not available due to the political events unfolding there.

Important findings included a paucity of institutional level data on key indicators on higher education, particularly on research involvement, the teaching and learning profile, the faculty profile and the financial profile of the institution.

Recent research by the World Bank has also noted the lack of data on similar indicators such as the qualifications and accomplishments of teaching staff; indicators of research excellence, such as memberships in prestigious academies and societies; and awards received by faculty.

The study also found a shortage at student level of disaggregated data by academic level and a lack of complete data about enrolment and graduation rates.

There was also an absence of data on international mobility of staff and students, two areas also flagged up by the World Bank. This indicated either a lack of mobility and academic exchanges at institutions or that the activity was not being measured.

A complication in collecting data on mobility is that, in the Arab world, people are often able to move across borders without any special documentation identifying them as foreign or international.

The study highlighted international influences on higher education in the region and noted that most institutions were aligned to a foreign model of higher education, with the French model most prevalent (45% of institutions), followed by the American (43%). The cultural orientation depended on a number of factors, including language, curriculum organisation, and historical affiliation.

The American model, which has witnessed rapid expansion during the past decade, has surpassed the French model, which predominated in the region from 1960-98.

The American influence is seen in the structure of courses, and the adoption of the semester system, and is most prevalent in the Gulf states, probably because Qatar and the UAE are already home to the branch campuses of several American institutions, the authors said.

The report said that Arab institutions’ involvement at the international level is relatively low with very few institutions engaged in various forms of international collaboration such as twinning. Student mobility among Arab countries was also weak. Yet there was a critical need for institutions to engage with those outside, especially as they rebuild their societies after the recent political events and begin to engage a newly mobilised youth population.

“Many higher education systems in the region are undergoing a transition from old systems to new,” said El-Amine, co-author of the report, and a founding member of the Lebanese Association for Education Studies.

“Overall, Arab institutions’ involvement at the international level is relatively low. Yet there is a critical need for institutions of the region to engage with those outside, especially as they rebuild their societies after the recent political events and begin to engage a newly mobilised youth population.”

The rapid growth of branch campuses in the region, such as those in Qatar and the UAE, is having an impact on the higher education landscape, bringing in international faculty and students.

However, there is a pervasive problem of weak institutional investment and engagement in research. Among the limited number of institutions for whom data were available, there are few research facilities and most institutions provide limited access to print books, e-books, print journals, e-journals and online databases. Teaching is given more weight than research and very few staff are active in research.

The authors said the study and resulting classification provide the groundwork for further research on developing a common framework that enables a better understanding of institutions in the region. The data from the study could also be used to generate rankings of higher education institutions in the seven pilot countries, especially on dimensions for which there were more complete and reliable data.

“The next step would require relative weighting of various indicators, a task that we did not undertake in our analysis as our goal was to present the data in a descriptive way, rather than to rank institutions,” the authors said.

They concluded that it is clear that to develop a comprehensive classification – with more complete classification that could be scaled up to apply to all countries in the region – more time and effort are needed to mobilise countries, ministers and institutions in the region regarding the importance of gathering high-quality institutional data and participating in the classifications initiative.

“Local buy-in is essential,” they said. “Without it there is little motivation for governments and institutions to participate and the initiative is perceived as being externally imposed.”

They said while it remains to be seen what role universities would play in responding to the current political upheaval sweeping the region – by preparing future leaders and the workforce of tomorrow – the Arab Spring at its most fundamental level has heightened the need for solid institutional data and information.