Arab Universities Need Collaboration

A glimmer of hope amid the university gloom

By Muhammad Ayish, The National UAE, October 26. 2008

Against a gloomy backdrop of diminishing higher education budgets and bureaucratic hindrances, collaborative networking with potential partners in the region at large opens up the most promising window of opportunity for Arab universities to go international.

The publication of the THES-QS World University Rankings for 2008 brings unhappy news for aspiring institutions of higher education in many regions, including the Arab world. According to the rankings, not one Arab university is among the top 400 in the world. The THES-QS report comes on the heels of the Academic Ranking of World Universities compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Institute of Higher Education, which offers an equally dismal assessment of Arab universities against global benchmarks.

While the findings of both reports have raised concerns about the implications of an apparently uncompetitive higher-education sector in the Arab knowledge economy, new developments in the region seem to show some promise of a better alignment between Arab universities and international higher education standards.

Although global university rankings such as those developed by THES-QS and Shanghai Jiao Tong are still in their infancy, they are increasingly viewed as providing credible benchmarks for higher education quality. The rankings, which focus heavily on the opinions of thousands of academics and recruiters, have become the most relied-upon international university grading system.

The THES-QS report draws on a wide range of assessment criteria, the most outstanding of which is research productivity. The report reveals weaknesses in Asia’s arts and social sciences programmes, but notes Europe’s distinction in engineering, IT and the natural sciences. In total, the United States remains the pre-eminent nation in higher education distinction, with 37 of the best 100 universities.

The failure of Arab universities to make it to the Best 400 list is indeed a source of frustration for a region that pins big hopes on the potential contributions of higher education to national development. But for academics and higher education policy makers, the grim realities of the region’s higher education landscape provide clear clues as to why things are going astray.

During the past five decades, as Arab universities became caught up in extensive quantitative expansion to accommodate the increasing demand for university education, their research programmes were bound to falter. One study found that the ratio of Arabs working in research and development is 318 per million, compared with 3,600 in industrialised countries. The number of annual scholarly publications in the Arab world in 2007 was estimated at 15,000 titles: in 1996 it was 8,171, which was at that time far lower than scholarly productivity in Belgium alone (13,913 titles).

The same bleak picture applies to innovative activities in science and technology: one international report reveals the number of registered patents in some Arab countries to be far lower than the international average. From 1980-2000, Arab patents registered in the US amounted to 171 from Saudi Arabia, 15 from Jordan, 52 from Kuwait and 77 from Egypt: those originating from South Korea alone during the same period came to 16,328. Even when viewed in terms of budget allocations for research, in Arab countries it does not exceed 0.02 per cent of GDP, while in industrialised countries it ranges from 2.5 to five per cent.

If we add bureaucratic complications to this funding deficiency, it is easy to see why Arab universities’ endeavours to be globally recognised have failed. These unfortunate facts have been frequently noted by two internationally recognised Egyptian scientists – Osama El Baz of the Nasa space programme, and Ahmed Zuwail, the 2005 Nobel laureate in chemistry – as they described their research experiences in their home country.

But despite the gloomy face of research in the region, there are hopeful signs of change in a new breed of dedicated knowledge institutions that envision the promotion of research as their prime target. And what is interesting is that these new players are coming from the Gulf region, mainly born out of a convergence of sound political vision and financial abundance. Examples include the Sharjah-based Arab Science and Technology Foundation, the Dubai-based Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation, the Emirates Foundation in Abu Dhabi, and the Qatar Foundation. The creation of a research-friendly environment in the region has also received a boost from massive funding allocations announced in Algeria this year ($60 billion), and 2.8 per cent of Qatar’s GDP. The good news is that such initiatives will surely contribute to the development of research productivity in the Arab world. The bad news is that this is not happening within institutions of higher education, which should be the natural incubators of research and development.

The frustrating absence of Arab universities from international rankings will continue to prod those institutions to improve their performance, especially in research productivity. I believe Arab universities have an excellent opportunity to enhance their standing against global benchmarks by creating more synergies with emerging knowledge institutions that enjoy huge political and financial support.

Against a gloomy backdrop of diminishing higher education budgets and bureaucratic hindrances, collaborative networking with potential partners in the region at large opens up the most promising window of opportunity for Arab universities to go international.

Muhammad Ayish is a professor of communications at the University of Sharjah

Source: The National, Abu Dhabi UAE

See Also: Israeli Colleges Among World’s Best

This entry was posted in Education Report, Islam, Middle East Report, News Articles, Opinion, Recent Posts. Bookmark the permalink.