Attracting students and faculty crucial for Arab education’s growing success

Phil Baty
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Is the Arab world heading into a new renaissance, driven by talent, innovation, and new knowledge creation?

This was a question asked at the recent Times Higher Education (THE) Emerging Economies Summit in Dubai late last year. The answer for many delegates was a confident “yes” if we can judge by the growing strength of the region’s universities.

As the United Arab Emirates celebrated its 50th anniversary, the latest edition of THE’s Emerging Economies Rankings was released at the summit – and it confirmed the growing maturity of the Emirates’ higher education system.

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While the giants of the so-called “BRIC” nations of Brazil, Russia, India, and China dominated the list in terms of representation, the UAE boasted an impressive concentration of five universities in the top 200. Khalifa University led the country in 21st place. At the same time, the United Arab Emirates University made the top 50 of a ranking that includes leading universities across more than 50 countries classified as emerging economies.

His Excellency Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh, chancellor of the United Arab Emirates University and adviser for cultural affairs at the UAE Ministry of Presidential Affairs, told the summit: “We will create our future by connecting minds… our future rests on our ability to learn and invent.”

The data suggests that much of the Arab world has a bright future. In North Africa, Egypt was the stand-out performer in the rankings. It has 23 universities on the scale of over 500 institutions, making it the seventh best-represented nation on the list.

But perhaps it is Saudi Arabia that saw the most eye-catching performance. Saudi’s flagship university, King Abdulaziz University, broke into the world’s top 200 in the 2022 World University Rankings. This landmark achievement has powered the university into the top 15 of all emerging economy universities.

It is the upward trajectory of Saudi Arabian universities and the momentum which gives rise to optimism for the country’s tertiary education. (File photo: Reuters)
It is the upward trajectory of Saudi Arabian universities and the momentum which gives rise to optimism for the country’s tertiary education. (File photo: Reuters)

Overall, Saudi had 15 universities ranked in the Emerging Economies ranking, but many had leaped up the table: King Saud University has jumped from 34th to 29th in one year; King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals has risen from 61st to 40th, and the University of Hail made its debut, arriving straight into the 68th position.

With both Egypt and Saudi, it is the upward trajectory of its universities and the momentum which gives rise to such optimism.

The World University Rankings, and the Emerging Economies Rankings that derive from the global list, are based on a considerable amount of data.

Over 100 million citations to around 14 million research publications are analyzed, combined with survey responses from over 20,000 scholars worldwide and hundreds of thousands of data points collected from universities all across the globe.

The data is combined into 13 carefully collaborated performance indicators grouped into five core pillars covering all aspects of a university’s essential activities: teaching, research excellence, research impact, knowledge transfer between universities and industry, and international outlook.

Of the Times Higher Education’s performance indicators, Saudi Arabia is one of the fastest-rising nations in the world in a single year in three of the five pillars: teaching, research excellence, and research impact. Egypt has been the fastest-improving nation in the world for research influence in the last year.

Taking a more extended period, over the last five editions of the THE World University Rankings, Saudi Arabia is the single most improved nation in the world for research influence. Egypt is among the most improved for its industry links (knowledge transfer).

But what is required to keep up this excellent momentum to ensure the innovation and knowledge-driven renaissance comes?

The data is clear on this issue. While the position varies across Arab world countries, there is little doubt that Arab nations under-fund their institutions. This means that faculty in Arab universities tend to be less productive in publishing research than the world average.

Under-funding also hampers capacity building: Arab world universities are producing fewer PhD candidates than the world average, too, limiting the flow of future research talent and hampering the birth of new ideas.

While the Arab world tends to have more internationally collaborative research than the world average, which is very positive, the data shows that the region needs to draw in more international talent. This includes attracting students and faculty, allowing them to stay competitive and drive further success.

As His Excellency Zaki Anwar Nusseibeh put it at the summit in Dubai: “In matters of innovation, diversity is our strength and collaboration is our most powerful tool…. The hard lesson of the COVID-19 pandemic is that advances in medicine, science, and technology have little value unless the global community finds the ability to work together, pool its resources, and cooperate on mutual challenges.”

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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