Academics welcome new national university ranking system

International education experts have generally welcomed the new Saudi national ranking system – the Saudi Global Ranking (SGR) – as a means to fine-tune traditional local universities’ progress towards socio-economic development, although some have argued a need for more objective and quantifiable parameters to be included.

The ranking system was launched by the Education and Training Evaluation Commission (ETEC) on 20 March. The SGR is part of the Human Capability Development Programme of the country’s Vision 2030.

Saudi Arabia is the sixth country out of 22 Arab states, after Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Iraq and Jordan, to produce a university ranking system.

The national universities ranking systems are in line with recommendations from a 2022 study entitled “The performance of higher education institutions in the Arab world from a strategic perspective: Challenges and possible solutions”, which indicated the value of local evaluations of performance rather than relying only upon global indicators and mechanisms.

Identifying strengths and weaknesses

Speaking to Al Ekhbariya, a government-operated Arabic satellite TV channel based in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, Professor Abeer Al-Harbi, general manager of ranking programmes at ETEC, said the SGR is a mechanism for measuring the performance of higher education institutions in Saudi Arabia to highlight their strengths and potential areas for improvement.

The indicators include: quality of teaching and learning (four sub-indicators which constitute 45% of institutional scores); research and knowledge transfer (two sub-indicators which constitute 30%); community partnerships and sustainability (two sub-indicators which constitute 15%); and internationalisation (two sub-indicators which constitute 10%).

The Saudi ranking system performance sub-indicators include educational outcomes, educational environment, accreditation, employability, research outputs, knowledge transfer, community contribution activity, sustainability, international activity and student/faculty exchange.

There are also specific sub-indicators based on Saudi’s needs, including socio-economic and developmental impact of universities through producing market-ready graduates and volunteering, along with entrepreneurial activity and patent licensing agreements with local organisations.

Local development needs

Professor Abdulkader Alfantookh, former deputy minister of higher education in Saudi Arabia, told University World News the SGR would “offer knowledge and information of importance to decision-makers and higher education institutional leaders to help them in the formulation of evidence-based higher education policies to enhance universities’ role in local socio-economic development”.

He said the SGR would encourage Saudi universities to work on updating their systems and strategic plans along with supporting areas and indicators that are directly related to the national ranking performance indicators.

“SGR will, of course, have a positive impact on quality and excellence in Saudi universities along with improving their image among the academic community and raising competitiveness among higher education institutions,” Alfantookh said.

Samir Khalaf Abd-El-Aal, research professor at the Biotechnology Research Institute of the National Research Centre in Cairo, told University World News that establishing a ranking system for local universities is a good start in the right direction to link universities and higher education institutions to local developmental needs.

“The ranking must use performance indicators that can be measured on the ground, not just adjusted by universities on paper,” Abd-El-Aal said.

“As universities must act as dynamic promoters of innovation, economic growth and sustainable development, the ranking system must use performance indicators that accelerate the transformation of traditional Saudi universities to a university 4.0 model, as well as entrepreneurial and innovative universities,” he added.

Abd-El-Aal’s views are supported by several studies which indicate that the global university ranking system and number of patents should not be the only metric for evaluating Saudi universities. Other parameters should also be considered to ensure universities fulfil their economic and social duties.

While there are some indications that Saudi Arabia’s universities are advancing in global university rankings, a recent Saudi study entitled “Saudi Universities’ Rapid Escalation in Academic Ranking Systems: Implications and Challenges” indicates that despite a rise in academic rankings along with higher scientific output in some Saudi universities, the role of Saudi universities in industrial collaboration, technology advancement and economic prosperity is low because of their weak performance in entrepreneurship, innovation and research commercialisation.

The danger of promoting mediocrity

Professor Atta-ur-Rahman, a UNESCO Science Prize laureate and former coordinator general of the Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, which includes Saudi Arabia, told University World News the national ranking system for Saudi universities was an “excellent” idea, but had some caveats.

“One needs to make sure that the new system does not hide creativity and entrepreneurship but enhances it,” said Atta-ur-Rahman, who is also a former federal minister of education in Pakistan.

“For instance, 45% marks are proposed for quality of teaching and learning while there is no objective way to assess the quality of teaching except to get some approximate indication by anonymous student evaluations,” Atta-ur-Rahman said.

“Allocation of such a high percentage of marks to such a subjective and weakly measurable parameter will mask quality and creativity, and promote mediocrity.

“Similarly, employability of students is another very rough subjective indicator which can only be accurately assessed through regular, accurate nationwide annual surveys that are never performed,” Atta-ur-Rahman said.

He said more accurate parameters were annual citations per faculty member (30% marks), annual PhDs produced per faculty member (20% marks), international patents per faculty member (20% marks), earnings to university from products commercialised per faculty member (10% marks), level of external grants per faculty member (10% marks) and international honours per faculty member (10% marks).

“Such a system, which is normalised according to the size of the faculty and strictly based on quantitative, objective and accurately measurable parameters, will be far more effective in showing up the best performing institutions and revealing the weak ones,” Atta-ur-Rahman argued.

“Otherwise, mediocrity will be promoted in Saudi universities and the true state of affairs will be concealed behind subjective yardsticks.”

A ‘glocal’ approach

Professor Sami Alhasnawi, from the college of education at the University of Al-Qadisiyah in Iraq, told University World News it was “wise” to establish a national university ranking system to enhance competitiveness and direct universities to their “real roles” in socio-economic development.

“To be effective and relevant, [a] national university ranking system must be based on ‘glocal’ incentives, challenges and changes wherein universities work to address national, cultural, socioeconomic and educational needs, while at the same time keep an eye on what is valued and relevant to the global market,” Alhasnawi said.

“It is a mid-way between nationalising and de-nationalising higher education knowledge to avoid being so marginalised and devalued due to the uncontrollable power of Western-based epistemic knowledge at the tertiary level.

“There should also be transparent criteria for evaluating what is going on on the ground as part and parcel of academicians’ practice,” Alhasnawi said.

“Linked to this, the kind of belief system shared among university staff must always be addressed and critically approached to see to what extent such a ranking system is really valued by those involved in it.”

Institutional differentiation and diversity

Dr Hayfa Jafar, director of institutional effectiveness at American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, told University World News that establishing a national university ranking system should not lead to institutional isomorphism.

“Overall, a national university ranking system can be a useful tool to create a competitive environment among national universities, drive them to improve their performance, and facilitate peer benchmarking.

“Nevertheless, it is not without limitations, such as lack of transparency, subjectivity and bias, and failure to capture the local context of each university in which it operates,” Jafar said.

She said it is impossible to create a one-size-fits-all system since each university has a different mission and capacity.

“Establishing a national university ranking system should not direct universities to be isomorphic. Besides creating a competitive environment, the national university ranking should promote institutional differentiation and diversity,” Jafar said.