Times Higher Education (THE) has produced a "snapshot" ranking of Arab universities extracted from its World University Rankings. There has been no change in the indicators or their weighting. Only 28 universities are included which raises questions about how suitable THE's methodology is for regions like the Middle East and North Africa.
This is an improvement over a remarkable MENA snapshot that THE did in 2015 which put Texas A and M University Qatar in first place by virtue of one half-time faculty member who was listed as a contributor to a multi-author, multi-cited CERN paper.
The top five universities this time are King Abdulaziz University (KAU), Saudi Arabia, King Fahad University of Petroleum and Minerals, Saudi Arabia, King Saud University, Saudi Arabia, Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research, UAE, and Qatar University.
The top three places are held by Saudi institutions. So how did they do it? According to an article by a THE editor for the World Economic Forum it was all due to money and internationalisation.
Up to a point that is correct. The sad story of Trinity College Dublin's botched data submission shows roughly how much a given reported increase can affect a university's overall rank: roughly 5 million Euro in reported total income (with proportionate increases for research income and income from industry) and a middling high university can jump up a spot in the overall rankings.
But does that explain KAU in top place? It did get a high score, 92.1, for international orientation but five other Arab universities did better. For teaching it was third, for industry income third, and for research seventh. What actually made the difference was Citations. KAU had a score of 93.3, far ahead of the next contender, Jordan University of Science and Technology with 50.2.
KAU's research impact is, according to THE, second in Asia only to the shooting star of india, Vel Tech University whose single self citing prodigy supposedly had a greater impact than the whole of any other Asian university. KAU's citations score was the result of the massive recruitment of adjunct faculty, 40 at the last count, who put KAU as a second affiliation. How much time they put in at KAU is uncertain but the Shanghai rankings calculated that highly cited researchers spent an average of 16% of their time at the university of their second affiliation.
It is bad enough that THE put so much emphasis on income and internationalisation in their methodology, promoting the diversion of resources from things like primary and pre-school education, adult literacy and alternatives to oil exports. To encourage universities to rise in the rankings by hiring adjunct faculty whose contribution is uncertain is very irresponsible. It would be a good thing if this snapshot was ignored.