Even people who complain that university rankings do not provide very useful information are still inclined to look at them.
On many levels, rankings appear valid: Princeton (ranked first by U.S. News & World Report, seventh by Times Higher Education) is really good; Rutgers (ranked 70th and 144th, respectively) is just plain good.
Recently, however, two university rankers decided to venture into new territory by ranking universities in the Middle East. U.S. News released its list of Best Arab Region Universities in November 2014—its first attempt to rank non-U.S. universities. And in February 2015, Times Higher Education released its MENA (Middle East and North Africa) Top 30, noting that only three Middle Eastern universities showed up in its World University Rankings’ top 400. Both publications say that they will continue to work on their methodologies — Times Higher Education calls its Top 30 a “snapshot” that is part of a much larger planned ranking of Middle East universities.
In the interest of disclosure, my university, the American University in Cairo, was ranked 15th by Times Higher Education, 58th over all by U.S. News (fourth for social sciences and 30th for engineering). Though these rankings do not reflect our reputation in the region, my intent in writing this article, as a scholar of comparative and international education, is not to comment on my own university’s rank, but to note the dangers posed by conducting ranking studies without knowing regional contexts
Both publications chose a very crude and simplistic methodology: Rather than obtaining data from the universities on issues such as student retention and faculty-student ratios, they both hit a few buttons on a research-paper database and came up with a ranking of paper-citation counts for good essay writing. “Best” in the Middle East, apparently, is defined as research impact only.
To point out that this is a narrow and misleading approach to evaluate universities would be a waste of effort. Most Chronicle readers will already have noted that theme by now. What should be highlighted, however, is the range of universities that showed up on the lists. Indeed, globally recognized universities such as King Abdullah University of Science and Technology appeared in the top five of both lists. For most observers, the strong showing of this well-resourced and powerful Saudi Arabian university demonstrates enough validity on its face.
The surprise? Plenty of struggling state universities in the region received strong rankings as well. Though many avid, passionate, and qualified people teach and learn at those universities, most people in the Arab world recognize that the institutions need significant investment and restructuring to become modern and viable. Faculty members are paid poorly; class sizes are extremely large; pedagogical methods are outdated; material resources are in bad condition; and perverse incentives plague standard academic processes.
The universities themselves should not be blamed for those conditions, as they are the result of archaic and bureaucratic educational systems, but the rankings demonstrate the minimal effort the analysts at Times Higher Education and U.S. News put into understanding those institutions. Indeed, few Arabs will place much trust in the rankings now.
The bigger concern — beyond student consumers — is that the rankings will validate the very universities and educational systems that desperately need incentives to improve. It is a harm that furthers the detrimental effects on the region’s youths, their prospects for employment, and the knowledge-based economic vitality that is so central to growing economies. Over 100 million people in the region are ages 15 to 29.
Egypt, for example, has a population of around 90 million and a troubled economy, but only around one-quarter of high-school graduates enroll in tertiary education. Still, many of those universities enroll double or triple the number of students they can handle; their faculty members are forced to work second, third, and fourth jobs to support their families; their libraries are in dire condition; and their students enter based on scores on rote-memorization exams. According to dozens of reports, conferences, and statements from the Brooking Institution, the World Bank, Silatech, and elsewhere, instructional quality must improve and the number of graduates must increase in order to meet employer demand in the Middle East.
Most knowledgeable observers see those universities as needing the world’s assistance, not its acclamation. The rankers should have thought more deeply about the millions of Arab youths who need jobs and access to the knowledge and skills necessary to compete globally for meaningful and substantial work.
Regardless of the troubles that U.S. News, for instance, has created for higher education in the United States, American college students still can graduate with adequate (and in most cases stellar) skills and knowledge. Furthermore, with categories for liberal-arts and regional teaching universities, a university in the United States can still feel comfortable sharing with its stakeholders that it is in the top of the rankings for its region of the country, or for the liberal arts, and not have to feel pressured to compete against Research I institutions. With this ranking methodology, there is no such choice in the Middle East.
Indeed, not allowing such a choice and not using the same methodologies the rankers use elsewhere — sending surveys, for instance, to universities so that the range of measures is wider — is problematic. The Middle East urgently needs more attention to be paid to quality teaching, student outcomes, employability, critical thinking, effective reasoning and analysis, and all the other values of higher education that we expect in the West.
Sure, the rankers have rushed their reports with sloppy methodologies. But now they must take responsibility for their own knowledge about the very universities they have ranked. They might start by visiting the universities on their lists, talking with people in the region about their struggles with the educational systems, and listening to frustrated employers. They might do more than punch a few buttons on a database and make money from the ensuing curiosity.
Ted Purinton is associate provost for academic administration and international programs and an associate professor of international and comparative education at the American University in Cairo.
Clarification (3/30/2015, 5:55 p.m.): A sentence has been added to this article to clarify that both U.S. News and Times Higher Education say they plan to continue working on their rankings’ methodologies and that the latter ranking is part of a larger effort under way to rank Middle East universities.