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‘Nouveau riche’ catching up

July 2012

A recent global ranking of higher education establishments shows the Gulf region still lags the traditional powerhouses on key performance criteria. But there are clear indications they are catching up

by Mark Lazell
[email protected]

Last month, the UK’s Times Higher Education (THE) magazine published a new ranking report for the top 100 of the world’s higher educational establishments under 50 years old.

In many respects the results – calculated from 13 different performance indicators – were much as expected, conforming broadly to stereotype. Institutions in East Asia, specifically South Korea and Hong Kong, performed strongly in the top 10, while their European and North American counterparts also dominated the other 100 positions.

In contrast, Gulf higher education establishments were conspicuous by their absence. In fact only Saudi Arabia’s King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals (KFUPM), formed in 1963 to support the kingdom’s petroleum and mineral industries – made it onto the list, and only then at a lowly 94th.

On the face of it, this is a disappointing outcome for a region which has spent billions of dollars on building its educational and intellectual base, including prioritising enclave-based agreements with leading Western institutions, to cater to the increasing numbers of school leavers.

According to the World Bank, the number of students enrolled in tertiary education in the MENA region tripled between 1995 and 2009. In a 2011 report entitled Financing Higher Education in the Middle East, it stated that MENA countries spend far more on higher education as a proportion of their per capita GDP than those of OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries.

“It has been demonstrated that more funding alone, per se, does not lead to higher quality. If promoting excellence and investment in R&D is the goal, then the need for additional resources is clear,” the report said.

Phil Baty, editor of Times Higher Education Rankings, which compiled the Top 100 Under 50, agrees that investment cannot be the sole driver of success for young institutions in the Gulf, but it certainly helps as part of a broader strategy.

“There is a political will [in the Gulf] to develop strong, excellent universities quickly and a will to back it with investment, which is very promising” he says.

Baty suggests that future progress for ‘fledgling’ institutions in emerging regions could well come at the expense of the famous old heritage universities such as those in the Europe and the US dogged by bureaucracy, awkward and inefficient management structures and a general lack of dynamism.

“Governments [in those countries] are in austerity. In America, funding is being withdrawn from the great public universities. We see worrying signs of decline – they are losing talent, and there are early signs they are starting to slip in world rankings,” he warns.

The political will in the Gulf to which Baty refers has, in part, been prompted by the changing global economic environment, as well as events in the Arab world over the last 18 months, which have stepped up pressure on governments to find jobs for their rapidly expanding populations.

Speaking at a recent conference on Gulf education in London, Talal Abu-Ghazaleh, chairman of Talal Abu-Ghazaleh Organization and president of the Arab Organization for Quality Assurance in Education, said the events in the region represented a “tectonic shift.”

“Much of the appeal of change originates in the judgment that the current educational systems have failed to address today’s challenges and the most pressing problems in our economy, society, industry, and environment,” he told delegates.

In its aforementioned 2011 report the World Bank noted that “higher education systems around the world need the ability to respond to a constantly changing economic environment, and to adjust to the increasingly rapidly changing technology-driven international markets.”

The publication in recent years of strategic development blueprints by Gulf governments, such as Qatar’s National Vision 2030 or Abu Dhabi Vision 2030, has also seen greater emphasis placed on the provision of higher education as an economic enabler.

“Probably the most exciting thing coming out of the Gulf is that there is a very strong consensus and clear strategic vision that the countries need to plan for a post-oil future, develop the knowledge economy and educate their people, developing innovative new research discoveries,” Baty says.

One such Gulf institution built to do just that is King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). Completed in just two years at a cost of about $10 billion, the Saudi institution opened its doors in September 2009. Today it has about 1,200 Masters and PhD students, and has a stated aim of joining the world’s educational elite over the next few years.

At the university’s inauguration ceremony, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulla ibn Abdul Aziz al Saud confirmed that creating such seats of learning served broad strategic purposes.

“Humanity has been the target of vicious attacks from extremists, who speak the language of hatred, fear dialogue, and pursue destruction,” he told guests. “We cannot fight them unless we learn to coexist without conflict – with love instead of hatred and with friendship instead of confrontation. Undoubtedly, scientific centres that embrace all peoples are the first line of defence against extremists. And today this university will become a house of wisdom to all its peers around the world, a beacon of tolerance.”

Bayt says the ambitions of institutions like KAUST are being closely monitored by his team.

“We are very aware of institutions like KAUST, who say ‘we want to be in the world top 10 science and technology universities by 2020’ and which has achieved an awful lot very quickly,” he explains.

“The university’s research output doubled over 2010-2011, there is huge money there, the physical buildings went up so quickly. It is an absolutely remarkable case study,” he says.

Baty says KAUST’s impressive early research performance follows a wider regional trend. “In terms of research, the Gulf and Middle East is seeing a resurgence in science – research output is increasing at a faster rate than Latin America, there are pockets of superb engineering and mathematics research coming out of places like Iran. It is a really exciting time.”

However, Baty warns that many hurdles remain to be overcome if Gulf institutions are to seriously challenge the world’s elite.

“There are some fundamental structural issues in the Gulf that need to be addressed, particularly with respect to balancing the need to educate young people for employment and leadership versus investing in high end research that pushes the boundaries of knowledge. There are sometimes competing priorities,” he explains.

“Also, one of the great characteristics of world-class universities is scholarly freedom and free thinking. There are challenges in certain regimes in this regard [in the Middle East],” he adds.

Cultural conventions could also prove a hindrance, particularly in Saudi Arabia, where men and women are traditionally segregated. KAUST, however, has bucked the trend, earning both admiration and criticism. Furthermore, clerics have reportedly also called for the university’s curriculum to be vetted by Islamic scholars.

Baty also argues that world-class universities can attract diverse, world-class academic talent.

“With all the good will and money in the world, you still need to attract the right academic talent from other countries, to build the critical mass on the ground.

“All world-class universities have a very diverse faculty and are melting pots attracting the best researchers regardless of where they come from – after all the best research is internationally collaborative.”

But, he stresses, it is also important that imported talent helps establish a learning culture, high research standards and ensure their expertise rubs off on talented individuals - many of whom seek to enter an increasingly competitive jobs market.

“Although total expenditures on education as a percentage of GDP are high for most MENA countries, the resources spent have not resulted in the economic or social benefits expected, as evidenced by the high unemployment rate of university graduates and low innovation outputs,” the World Bank report warned.

Translating higher education investment into jobs is a challenge Gulf states have sought to address by encouraging institutions to tie up with local industries. In any case, Baty believes the Gulf has much to be optimistic about, even if its seats of learning are unlikely to rocket up rankings such as the Top 100 Under 50 any time soon.

“With focused investment, innovation, strategic vision and lots of talent, some institutions have managed to achieve in a matter of years what the traditional elite universities have developed over many generations.

“You can’t produce a large seat of learning in a short time, but if you are focused and dynamic and have the right financial and political backing and the right talent at the helm you can do it,” he concludes.

“The heritage institutions need to watch their backs.”

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