Arab educators weigh new university classification system

Top university ranking systems emphasise factors such as quality of research, including citations, the quality of faculty and students’ success after graduation.
Sunday 28/10/2018
A need for change. Students arrive at the Manouba Faculty of Arts, Letters, and Humanities outside Tunis. 		             (AFP)
A need for change. Students arrive at the Manouba Faculty of Arts, Letters, and Humanities outside Tunis. (AFP)

TUNIS - Arab educators and government officials are looking to create a classification system to better gauge universities in a region where the quality of education lags and graduate unemployment is high.

“We have to answer the question of why Arab universities have failed to produce talented students who create enterprises so as to employ themselves and others and create wealth,” said Abul-Kacem Hassan al-Badri, head of the Arab League Educational, Cultural and Scientific Organisation’s science department.

Badri, speaking October 16 at a meeting of educators convened to develop a comprehensive ranking system for Arab universities, said: “The crisis of mass unemployment among university graduates in the Arab region is our main concern.”

“Arab universities have a social responsibility and leading role to develop the economy and society of the Arab world,” he said.

Over the past two decades, Arab countries have spent a larger percentage of their GDP on education than states in other developing areas, the World Bank said, but the results have been poor, with students behind their peers elsewhere.

To better position Arab students for the future, Badri and other experts argued that Arab universities must help students develop skills that meet various sectors’ needs and build up the private sector by offering research for development projects.

Abdelmajid Ben Ammar, director of scientific research at Tunisia’s Ministry of Higher Education, said producing more “scientific research,” a key factor used in university rankings, should be a priority.

The new Arab classification model, he said, would strengthen the region’s universities by providing benchmarks and key indicators by which they could measure and track their improvement relative to similar institutions.

Another goal, Ben Ammar added, would be to increase ties between Arab universities to facilitate knowledge sharing, research, cooperation and collaboration.

While Arab universities, including Tunisia’s El Manar University and Sfax University, recently improved their global rankings, experts said, most Arab universities are not on the same footing as those in Europe, the United States and Asia, which enjoy much higher levels of funding.

Top university ranking systems, such as the Shanghai Ranking and the Times Higher Education, emphasise factors such as quality of research, including citations, the quality of faculty and students’ success after graduation.

These highly competitive rankings are dominated by universities from the United States, Europe and Asia.

“These rankings do not favour Arab universities because their roles are different compared to most Western universities at the top of the rankings,” said Badri, who noted that a lack of funding was a major drawback for Arab universities.

He compared Egypt’s Ain Shams, which educates 170,000 students on a budget of approximately $400 million, to top-ranked universities in the West, which sometimes educate around 20,000 students on an annual budget of $5 billion.

“With a low budget, an Arab university cannot afford to hire Nobel Prize-winning teachers and have a bigger research operation and lure more foreign students. All these elements are part of the measures in the ranking,” Badri said.

Tunisian Higher Education Minister Slim Khalbous said an Arab classification system would be put forward not to “distinguish ourselves from others” but to “design the best strategies to remedy to our weak spots and improve our strength.”

Other Arab education experts noted that all world rankings “started off locally” and later gained international reputations and Arabs can do the same with their own classification system.

“The design of our classification must reflect our reality here and the reality in the Arab world,” Khalbous said.

Arab ministers are expected to endorse the classification system following meetings between Arab education experts and university leaders.

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