Lowering the Bar: U.S. News Releases its First Best Arab Region Universities Rankings

 By Haidar M. Harmanani | Professor of Computer Science, Lebanese American University, Byblos, Lebanon

US News released its inaugural Arab Region Universities rankings for a 800-plus universities in the Arab world. The new rankings are based on an assessment of research productivity at regional universities that were abstracted and cited in Scopus, Elsevier’s abstract and citation database of peer-reviewed literature over a five-year period, from 2009 through 2013. The ranking required a university to have 400 or more total publications that are tracked by Scopus in order to be included in the list of best 91 universities. The rankings used nine indicators and weights that US News used to measure research output and performance. The weights emphasize, in nearly equal proportions, the importance of getting published in peer-reviewed journals; getting those publications cited by other researchers in their work, and having highly cited papers in their fields.

University rankings are orderings of institutions of higher education based on various indicators such as reputation, patents, alumni employment, and research influence. Rankings typically evaluate institutions within a country, region, as well as worldwide. Although the subject has produced much debate about rankings' usefulness and accuracy, the public has embraced rankings as an important factor in assessing the quality and value of education. There are various ranking systems; however, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, along with the QS World University Rankings and the Academic Ranking of World Universities are described as being the three most influential international university rankings. The Arab Region Universities rankings includes 91 universities from 16 Arab countries that were selected from a larger pool of well over 800 universities. Egypt comes in the first place with 22 universities (24%), followed by Saudi Arabia with 13 universities (14%), and Algeria with 12 universities (13.19%). Universities in the Gulf are making major strides in improving their regional as well as their international rankings. According to various studies, some universities in Saudi Arabia possess more highly cited researchers than almost any other university in the world.

The Arab Region Universities rankings is the first formal attempt at analyzing and ranking regional universities. However, it is clear that US News has designed a ranking that works for a region where data is scarce and research is not part of the academic culture. For example, the ranking does not appear to be consistent with US News Best Global Universities rankings as well as with the US News Best National Universities rankings that use outcome-related measures, such as graduation and retention rates, the most heavily weighted factors in the latter.  The use of Scopus for ranking Arab Universities is a sharp contrast to the usual US News practice of using Thomson Reuters InCitesTM research analytics solutions in order to rank US national as well as global universities. The selected research threshold of 400 is well below the one used to determine eligibility for the U.S. News Best Global Universities rankings. The Arab Region Rankings are not consistent with most international rankings such as QS World University Rankings, CWTS Leiden Ranking, and Times Higher Education Rankings as illustrated in Table 1. The most startling observation is that there are no Arab universities ranked in the top 500 by Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings. Furthermore, only two top 10 universities in the Arab World are ranked globally in the top 500 universities: King Saud University (473) and Cairo University (443). Finally, the rankings do not scrutinize secondary affiliations and their impact on ranking. For example, according to an unpublished analysis of the Thomson Reuters data, Saudi Arabia is the country with by far the highest proportion of highly cited researchers (82%) who list their institutions only as secondary overseas affiliations. King Abdulaziz is listed as a secondary affiliation by 122 researchers, compared with 27 for the next most commonly listed institution, Harvard.

The Arab Region Universities rankings illustrates a new trend in the Arab World in accepting ranking as a standard for higher education quality. The rankings can now help parents select universities that provide the best value per dollar, and provide students, policymakers and employers with a tool to compare and benchmark universities. It also illustrates a welcome initiative in establishing a systematic system for assessment and evaluation in higher education. They do leave much to be desired such as including additional metrics and indicators that are based on research and teaching reputation as well as correlating the rankings with the recent global US News ranking.

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