Sunday, March 25, 2018

Ranking Arab Universities

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has been slower than some others to jump on the rankings train but it seems to be making up for lost time. In addition to the standard world rankings there are now MENA (or Arab world or region) university rankings from Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), Times Higher Education (THE), US News (USN) and Webometrics.

Taking methodologies developed to rank elite western universities and applying them to regions with different traditions, resources and priorities is no easy task. For most Arab universities, research is of little significance and attaining international prominence is something that only a few places can reasonably hope for. But there is still a need to differentiate among those institutions that are focussed largely on teaching.

Alex Usher of HESA has spoken of the difficulty of using metrics based on research, expenditure, and student quality. I agree that institutional data is not very helpful here. However, measures of social influence such as those in the Webometrics and QS Arab rankings, and peer and employer surveys, used by USN and QS, might be useful in assessing the teaching quality, or at least the perceived quality, of these universities.

If rankings are to be of any use in the MENA region, then they will have to find ways of comparing selectivity, student quality and social impact. There is little point in forcing regional universities into the Procrustean bed of global indicators designed to make fine distinctions within the Russell Group or the Ivy League.

This is pretty much what THE have done with the 2018 edition of their Arab World Rankings, which is simply extracted from their world rankings published in 2017. These rankings are very research orientated and include measures of income, doctoral degrees and internationalisation. They also give a disproportionate weighting to citations, supposedly a measure of research impact or research quality.

Here are the top five in the recent editions of the various Arab Region/MENA rankings.

1.   King Abdulaziz University, Saudi Arabia
2.   Khalifa University, UAE
3.   Qatar University
4.   Jordan University of Science and Technology
5.   United Arab Emirates University (UAEU)

1.    American University of Beirut, Lebanon
2.    King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, Saudi Arabia
3.    King Saud University, Saudi Arabia
4.    King Abdulaziz University
5.    United Arab Emirates University

1.    King Saud University
2.    King Abdulaziz University
3.    King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), Saudi Arabia
4.    Cairo University, Egypt
5.    American University of Beirut

1.    King Saud University
2.    King Abdulaziz University
3.    King Abdullah University of Science and Technology
4.    Cairo University
5.    American University of Beirut

Webometrics and USN are identical for the first six places. It is only when we reach seventh place that they diverge: UAEU in Webometrics and Ain Shams, Egypt, in the USN rankings. Webometrics measures web activity with a substantial research output indicator while USN is mainly about research with some weighting for reputation.

The list of top universities in QS, which uses Webometrics data as one indicator, is quite similar. QS does not count research universities such as KAUST, third place in the WEbometrics and USN rankings but otherwise it is not too different from the other two.

The THE rankings have a disproportionate weighting for research impact supposedly measured by field and year normalised citations. Officially, it is 30 % but in fact it is much higher because of the regional modification that gives a big bonus to universities in countries with a low citation impact score.

For example, KAU's score for citations amounts to nearly 60% of its total score. Other universities in THE's top twenty have citation scores higher, sometimes much higher, than their research scores.

In effect, the THE Arab rankings are mostly about citations, very often in a limited range of disciplines. They can be easily, sometimes accidentally, gamed and can lead to perverse consequences, such as recruiting highly cited researchers or searching for citation-rich projects that have little relevance to the region or country.


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