If you follow rankings at all, you’ll have noticed that there is a fair bit of activity going on in the Middle East these days. US News & World Report and Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) both published “Best Arab Universities” rankings last year; this week, the Times Higher Education (THE) produced a MENA (Middle East and North Africa) ranking at a glitzy conference in Doha.
The reason for this sudden flurry of Middle East-oriented rankings is pretty clear: Gulf universities have a lot of money they’d like to use on advertising to bolster their global status, and this is one way to do it. Both THE and QS tried to tap this market by making up “developing world” or “BRICs” rankings, but frankly most Arab universities didn’t do too well on those metrics, so there was a niche market for something more focused.
The problem is that rankings make considerably less sense in MENA than they do elsewhere. In order to come up with useful indicators, you need accurate and comparable data, and there simply isn’t very much of this in the region. Let’s take some of the obvious candidates for indicators:
Research: This is an easy metric, and one which doesn’t rely on local universities’ ability to provide data. And, no surprise, both US News and the Times Higher Ed have based 100% of their rankings on this measure. But that’s ludicrous for a couple of reasons. First is that most MENA universities have literally no interest in research. Outside the Gulf (i.e. Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, and Saudi Arabia) there’s no available money for it. Within the Gulf, most universities are staffed by expats teaching 4 or even 5 classes per term, with no time or mandate for research. The only places where serious research is happening are at one or two of the foreign universities that are part of Education City in Doha, and in some of the larger Saudi Universities. Of course the problem with Saudi universities, as we know, is that at least some of the big ones are furiously gaming publication metrics precisely in order to climb the rankings, without actually changing university cultures very much (see for example this eye-raising piece).
Expenditures: This is a classic input variable used in many rankings. However, an awful lot of Gulf universities are private and won’t want to talk about their expenditures for commercial reasons. Additionally, some are personal creations of local rulers who spend lavishly on them (for example, Sharjah and Khalifa Universities in UAE); they’d be mortified if the data showed them to spending less than the Sheikh next door. Even in public universities, the issue isn’t straightforward. Transparency in government spending isn’t universal in the area, either; I suspect that getting financial data out of an Egyptian university would be a pretty unrewarding task. Finally, for many Gulf universities, cost data will be massively wonky from one year to the next because of the way compensation works. Expat teaching staff (in the majority at most Gulf unis) are paid partly in cash and partly through free housing, the cost of which swings enormously from one year to the next based on changes in the rental market.
Student Quality: In Canada, the US, and Japan, rankings often focus on how smart the students are based on average entering grades, SAT scores, etc. But those simply don’t work in a multi-national ranking, so those are out.
Student Surveys: In Europe and North America, student surveys are one way to gauge quality. However, if you are under the impression that there is a lot of appetite among Arab elites to allow public institutions to be rated by public opinion then I have some lakeside property in the Sahara I’d like to sell you.
Graduate Outcomes: This is a tough one. Some MENA universities do have graduate surveys, but what do you measure? Employment? How do you account for the fact that female labour market participation varies so much from country to country, and that many female graduates are either discouraged or forbidden by their families from working?
What’s left? Not much. You could try class size data, but my guess is most universities outside the Gulf wouldn’t have an easy way of working this out. Percent of professors with PhDs might be a possibility, as would the size of the institution’s graduate programs. But after that it gets pretty thin.
To sum up: it’s easy to understand commercial rankers chasing money in the Gulf. But given the lack of usable metrics, it’s unlikely their efforts will amount to anything useful, even by the relatively low standards of the rankings industry.