Amid the controversial expansion of university rankings over the past 30 years, it is perhaps surprising that any region of the world should remain unranked in the present day.
Indeed, one of the final frontiers may soon be conquered as US News, the QS Intelligence Unit and Times Higher Education develop university rankings for the Middle East and North Africa. The so-called MENA region is the latest target for the publications, with US News and QS aiming for Autumn 2014 release dates.
Yet this is no simple task in a vast, heterogeneous region that is barely held together by geography and even less so by culture and politics.
While these projects may provide incentivising acknowledgements to wealthy Gulf institutions and a measure of independence for international branch campuses, it is more likely that rankings will only further the inequality and competitive bent of an already fragmented region.
MENA’s imminent ranking has the potential to limit cooperation within the region as institutions turn their gaze toward international partnerships.
Perhaps more concerning is the influence that rankings could have on nascent higher education sectors in the region if institutions and governments realign their priorities to suit the qualities that are rewarded in the ranking schemes.
Diversifying the economy
The introduction of ranking systems to the MENA region is fulfilling the aspirations of newly emerging institutions, particularly those of the wealthy countries of the Gulf such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
These states have made higher education a growing service industry in the region and a fundamental element in their strategies to diversify their economies away from petroleum resources.
In addition to large public universities, several of these countries have successfully attracted international branch campuses, providing subsidies or high-tech facilities to attract prestigious institutions and experimenting with innovative public sector instruments such as ‘free zones’ to attract others.
Clearly the top-funded, federal universities on the southern shore of the Gulf would derive the greatest benefit from these ranking schemes, particularly if well marketed by a source like US News or QS.
Having invested heavily in higher education, Gulf institutions and their sponsors seek recognition of their progress, which could serve as a platform for collaborating with premier Western universities.
While ranking has the potential to market the wealthy Gulf universities, it may also hold unexpected benefits for the dozens of international branch campuses in the region.
In the current plans, international branch campuses will be ranked as independent entities rather than borrowing the prestige of the home campus or the broader reputation of its home country.
Though this may sideline universities with truncated programme offerings and limited research, it will offer a degree of independence and recognition that more established branch campuses seek in the hope of gaining increased levels of autonomy from home campuses.
The emergence of federal universities and branch campuses in the wealthy Gulf countries represents a shift eastwards from MENA’s historically significant universities in the Maghreb and the traditional elite institutions such as the American University in Cairo and the American University of Beirut.
Ranking promises prestige for relatively new Gulf universities and it is not surprising that the US News ranking project received support and assistance from the Qatar Foundation – a funding source with significant investments in education.
But what of universities elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa?
To rank these institutions against the wealth and glamour of the Gulf would serve to further marginalise the smaller institutions that are focused on the teaching and learning activities that are desperately needed in developing economies.
The competitive pool of regional rankings could furthermore prove to be a disincentive for cooperation between universities in a region already subject to ideological divisions existing between the Arab nations and the neighbourhood’s outliers of Iran and Israel and, to a lesser extent, between the Maghreb, Levant and Gulf.
Competitive measures like rankings will do little to promote academic collaboration between institutions that already have significant political divides to overcome.
Rankings are a force that simultaneously differentiates and standardises institutions.
At the level of institutional data, supporters of ranking evoke the potential of such systems to standardise definitions and thereby increase the accuracy of institutional data. They claim that regional standards could serve as a foundation for institutional benchmarking, allowing universities to focus on individual indicators they themselves prioritise.
In a region where institutions are notoriously secretive about data, this sort of benchmarking offers hope of increased transparency.
Yet when rankings impose external sets of indicators, standardisation means pushing institutions towards a pre-determined set of goals that might not be suited to the needs of students, educators, regional employers or even national development.
There has been a tendency, since the advent of rankings, towards shaping academic missions to a standardised set of goals that are pursued through shared, externally controlled indicators.
With the impending MENA rankings, this homogenisation of mission and programmes will be driven by a focus on external measures of quality such as research productivity and resulting citations.
The most immediate result will be increasing the primacy of English as the language of research and instruction. This could prove the death knell for French language institutions in the Maghreb and the Levant and further limit the use of Arabic in the classroom.
Such a development would damage the ability of institutions in the Middle East and North Africa to educate the very citizens that they purport to train on behalf of the nations that are investing in their futures. As a result, externally driven ranking can lead to a decrease in mission diversity by pushing institutions toward a comprehensive, research-intensive model.
The reality is that rankings are coming to the Middle East and North Africa. But a complex and fluctuating region like MENA needs a conscientious scheme that considers more than financial investment in world-class research.
Alternative measures are needed such as teaching and student satisfaction surveys; and perhaps a refreshing approach that applauds institutions for regional collaboration, community involvement and contributions to the development of national workforces.
These measures could benefit the region by recognising institutional quality in terms that are relevant to the students and their countries.