Saudi, Emirati universities rank among best in region

As the Gulf becomes a more attractive destination for higher education students, the region is becoming a net importer of students.
Sunday 21/10/2018
A view of the American University of Sharjah.                                                                         (AUS)
First-class research. A view of the American University of Sharjah. (AUS)

As education across the world experiences massive revamping to keep up with technological changes, universities in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are leading the Gulf in the field.

King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia, ranking in the second tier (201-250), topped universities in Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries in “World University Rankings 2018,” which was compiled by Times Higher Education and includes 1,102 universities from 77 countries.

It was followed by Khalifa University (301-350) in the United Arab Emirates, Qatar University (401-500), the United Arab Emirates University (501-600) and Alfaisal University (501-600) in Riyadh.

Educational experts said the rankings are crucial for GCC countries because they give external validation of higher education institutions.

“They provide governments with good arguments for their people to attend local universities rather than travelling abroad,” said Natasha Ridge, executive director at the Sheikh Saud bin Saqr al-Qasimi Foundation for Policy Research in Ras al-Khaimah. “They also signal that governments in the region are serious about being seen as knowledge economies and not just oil economies.”

Many Gulf governments invested heavily in higher education and research in the last ten years. Last year, the UAE Ministry of Education introduced the National Strategy for Higher Education 2030 with the aim of reaching the highest standards in education. In Saudi Arabia, $1.6 billion is earmarked for research and development in the next two years, significantly affecting Saudi higher education sector as part of the Saudi Vision 2030 strategy to diversify the economy.

“Gulf countries have tried to recreate best practices in higher education in their local institutions and this evidence of a change in focus [can be seen] from being teaching universities to being research-producing universities,” Ridge said.

“Saudi Arabia in particular has spent millions on creating first-class research universities, such as the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, and it has been able to attract some of the best academics to these universities, which would also have assisted the rankings.”

She said she expects to see continued investment and improvement in the sector because governments are learning the benefit of having research universities. “One challenge remains the underemphasis on the humanities and softer sciences, such as psychology and sociology, which are integral to the region,” Ridge added. “The lack of tenure is also a barrier to attracting top tier academics and needs to be addressed somehow.”

Judith Finnemore, an education consultant at Focal Point Management Consultancy in the United Arab Emirates, said the rankings have significance to Gulf countries, especially for students who remain in their home countries for tertiary education.

She said, however, there is a preponderance of students wishing to travel to the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and elsewhere due to the advantage of acquiring the “Western flavour” and the overall higher rankings globally of the universities in those countries.

“The most important thing is that they are improving,” Finnemore said. “In the future, the generally improving educational quality in schools should ensure a better-suited student enters local universities and this will drive up standards.”

Peter Davos, founder of Hale Education Group in Dubai, said the rankings are an indication of maturity in the GCC in terms of investment in higher education yielding tangible results, resulting in this upward shift and mobility.

“They are crucial for many consumers for their perception of a value of a university, particularly parents who may not understand the relative strengths of one university or another,” he said. “It’s the result of a very concerted policy of investment prioritisation and it’s good to see some of these universities are getting international recognition after so much time and expenditure, especially in the Gulf where the majority of the population is expatriates.”

As the Gulf becomes a more attractive destination for higher education students, the region is becoming a net importer of students.

“If you can import the best and the brightest to your country, it’s the best model,” Davos said. “New York University Abu Dhabi has an increasingly multinational and diverse student body and it’s wonderful to have those perspectives and experiences shared in the classroom. The cultural exchange has been very one-sided for the majority of the last 50 years but now we’re seeing more parity and more balance.”

He spoke of an ever-evolving fluid landscape. “It’s a very interesting development,” Davos added. “Globally, we will see more emphasis on international exchange, even in the United States, some universities obligate students to spend time in three countries, so we are moving away from a nation-centric type of model and more into these blended programmes.”

A growing emphasis on digital is also expected.

“These trends are increasingly gathering pace,” he said. “It’s good news for everybody. The more exchange we have, the better off we’ll be.”