Most Arab universities improve in rankings indicators

The majority of universities across the Arab region have improved their overall score in performance indicators in the Arab University Rankings, while universities from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) dominate the top 10 and Egypt has the highest number of ranked universities across the Arab world.

Released on 29 November, the second Times Higher Education (THE) Arab University Rankings ranked 169 universities across 15 Arab countries out of the 22 member states of the Arab League.

The rankings are based on the same framework as the flagship THE World University Rankings, with some adjustments and the inclusion of new metrics to reflect the features and missions of universities in the Middle East and North Africa.

For example, the participation criteria for the Arab University Rankings are less strict than those for the World University Rankings, according to the THE website.

Universities must publish at least 500 publications over a five-year period to be included in the Arab ranking (down from 1,000 for the World University Rankings). “This reflects the growing nature of higher education in the region,” according to THE.

In addition, postgraduate-only institutions have been permitted to participate in the Arab ranking.

There are also three Arab-specific metrics, although these all have relatively low weightings. Because of the strong focus on sustainability in the region, two measures based on participation and performance in the THE Impact Rankings were included. Research collaboration among universities in the Arab world was examined separately.

A total of 16 performance indicators are grouped into five areas including teaching (the learning environment – 33%); research (volume, income and reputation – 33%); citations (research influence – 20%); international outlook (staff, students and research – 8%); and society (knowledge transfer and impact – 6%).

Top performers

King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia tops the ranking for the second consecutive year followed by King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in second place and Qatar University in third place.

The top 10 universities are located in four countries only, namely, Saudi Arabia (5), United Arab Emirates (3), Qatar (1) and Egypt (1).

These include King Abdulaziz University (first), King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (second), Prince Mohammad Bin Fahd University (fourth), King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals (sixth) and King Saud University (joint seventh) in Saudi Arabia; and Khalifa University (fifth), United Arab Emirates University (joint seventh) and the University of Sharjah in the UAE (ninth); as well as Qatar University (third) and Zewail City of Science and Technology in Egypt (10th).

The UAE gained a third university in the top 10 as a result of the University of Sharjah rising to ninth place, up an impressive 10 places from joint 19th.

The top 10 most represented countries in the ranking are Egypt (34 universities), Saudi Arabia (32), Iraq (23), Jordan (14), Tunisia (10), Morocco (10), UAE (9), Lebanon (5) and Palestine (4).

All 15 countries in the Arab University Rankings have improved their overall representation since last year, except for Lebanon and Bahrain: Lebanon has five institutions ranked, down from seven, and Bahrain has one university ranked, down from two last year.

Arab universities performed best on the society pillar and were weakest when it came to research.

Seven Arab countries did not have any universities included in the ranking, namely, Comoros, Djibouti, Mauritania, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Comparison with regional peers

Professor Mohamed Orabi, head of the ranking committee and vice-president for postgraduate studies and scientific research at Aswan University in Egypt, told University World News: “The THE Arab university ranking is geared towards a regional set of universities that share the same challenges, priorities, opportunities, culture and missions.

“Consequently, it gives an opportunity for Arab universities to be ranked against their regional peers.”

Professor Ahmed El-Gohary , former president of the Egypt-Japan University of Science and Technology, told University World News he believes the regional ranking is “a healthy step toward universities’ excellence”.

“Identifying excellence among higher education institutions motivates interactions and diverse collaborations,” El-Gohary said.

Salwa Thabet Mekky, professor of public administration and director of international affairs at the Future University in Egypt, welcomed the results of the Arab University Rankings, arguing that “regional and international rankings bring several benefits to educational institutions”.

“Rankings are a key driver for promoting and maintaining quality assurance, as they are based on specific key performance indicators relevant to research production and impact, academic reputation, partnerships, internationalisation and community outreach,” she said.

“Rankings also promote image and, hence, upgrade institutional position and reputation as well as visibility, which makes [an institution] more prestigious and more capable of attracting and retaining highly qualified academicians and researchers,” Mekky said.

According to Orabi, the rankings show that there are “many highly competitive Arab universities which have prestigious programmes that are preparing distinguished graduates to implement strategies of sustainability and development compared with their global peers”.

Abdellah Benahnia, a part-time international researcher and professor at the Superior Institutions of Science and Technology, an associate college of Cardiff Metropolitan University in Casablanca, Morocco, told University World News it was clear from the rankings that the Arab states’ “views and strategies towards the higher education sector have paid off and, hence, the ranking of our universities had positively changed”.

“Several Arab universities have, indeed, invested so much energy and effort into changing their image, infrastructure and strategies for the betterment of their educational output and levels,” Benahnia said.

“Arab universities, in fact, earned those positions by merit and as it is always said, ‘hard work pays off’.”

Dependence on collaboration

UNESCO Science Prize laureate Atta-ur-Rahman, the former coordinator general of the Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation of the 57 member states of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which has 22 Arab member countries, conceded that the THE 2022 rankings for the Arab region showed “some improvements” within the Arab region.

“However, not a single university could be ranked among the top 100 universities of the world despite the location of the two oldest universities across the world being in the Arab region – Morocco-based University of Al-Karaouine and Egypt-based Al-Azhar University,” Atta-ur-Rahman said.

“King Abdulaziz University (KAU) was ranked as the best in the Arab world, but this ranking is somewhat deceptive as it is dependent largely on collaboration with senior foreign scientists.

“It is noticeable that only 20% of its publications were purely with local authors, while 80% were with eminent foreign authors, most of whom were liberally funded, highlighting a major intrinsic weakness,” Atta-ur-Rahman said.

Atta-ur-Rahman’s concerns are supported by a 2022 Saudi study entitled “Saudi universities’ rapid escalation in academic ranking systems: Implications and challenges”, which stated that despite a “significant rise in the academic ranking of Saudi universities, the innovation and human development indices put Saudi Arabia well behind”.

Also, a 2019 study entitled “King Abdulaziz University’s approach to international collaboration” indicated that KAU had established joint international cooperation agreements and service contracts to the value of US$120 million with many of the world’s distinguished universities and educational institutions, including the Distinctive Scientists Program to increase collaboration between KAU researchers and well-known researchers from all over the globe with the aim of increasing its ranking and becoming a world-class university, among others.

Echoing Atta-ur-Rahman’s views, Professor Sami Hammami, former vice-president of the University of Sfax in Tunisia, told University World News: “The emergence of certain universities in the Gulf countries like Saudi Arabia is commendable and comes mainly from the financial means made available to the best researchers in the world and in particular from the Maghreb countries such as Egypt, Syria and Jordan.”

Future strategy

Going forward, Orabi said Arab universities should “maintain competitiveness and keep an eye on new trends in research and technology along with developing effective international relationships and collaborations”.

“For Arab universities with low performance, they should enhance their international outlook and research quality,” Orabi said.

According to Atta-ur-Rahman, in order to make significant progress, the universities in the Arab region need to undertake several reforms.

“Arab universities must ensure that at least 70% of their annual budgets are allocated to research,” Atta-ur-Rahman said.

“Arab universities must also introduce key performance indicators for university staff members, including presidents, vice-presidents, deans and chairs.

“The performance of university staff members should then be measured annually by international experts against transparent international yardsticks with no weightage for seniority. The poorly performing staff members should be removed,” Atta-ur-Rahman said.

El-Gohary said a key issue of higher education advancement is the political stability of a country and the need for a country to appreciate the vital role of education as a “master element for the country’s development”.

“More important is how the higher education [sector] is considered by the political leader(s) of the country,” El-Gohary said.

“Definitely, universities with appropriate resources (infrastructure, human, financial, social and scientific reputation, etc) will lead in excellence … however, good governance is an indispensable factor for any university to excel.

“The strongest dimension needed by any higher education system or university to advance is the existence of high demand reflected in excellent students, locally or internationally.

“Advancement of universities in a country can be accelerated when barriers and obstacles facing the influx of international students are removed and replaced by the facilities needed to accommodate this cohort,” El-Gohary concluded.