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Middle Eastern universities top THE rankings

MATT SALUSBURY writes

A Middle Eastern university tops the table in the Times Higher Education’s (THE) ‘world’s most international universities 2016’ rankings.

Qatar University occupies first place, the American University of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates – UAE) is in twelfth place, United Arab Emirates University is in fifteenth place, and the American University of Beirut in Lebanon and King Abdulaziz University Saudi Arabia share 27th place. Another Saudi institution, King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals, makes the upper eighties.

THE notes, ‘The ability of a university to attract undergraduates, postgraduates and faculty from all over the planet is key to its success on the world stage.’ These rankings, published in mid-January, rate unis with the ‘most international outlook’ based on an ‘international outlook indicator’ built into the better-known THE World University Rankings 2015–16.

The ‘international outlook (staff, students, research)’ element of the World University Rankings, which accounts for 7.5 per cent of the total score of 100, includes the ‘international-to-domestic-student ratio’, the ‘international-to-domestic-staff ratio’ and ‘international collaboration’, which is based on the proportion of a university’s total research journal publications that had at least one co-author from another university in a different country. This figure is adjusted to account for each university’s subject mix and takes into account citations of these works by scholars around the world.

Within the rankings, international outlook is scored out of 100, with Qatar University in first place scoring 99.9 per cent and universities around 200th place scoring around 65.

Outside the Middle East, the UK performs well. Imperial College, London comes in at 8th place, with a cluster of UK institutions starting in 18th place, with Oxford level with UCL, followed by King’s College London in 20th, Essex in 21st, LSE in 22nd place, Queen Mary University of London in 23rd and Queen’s University Belfast in 24th place. Another cluster of UK universities in the lower thirties includes St Andrews, Brunel, Cambridge and Aberdeen.

There’s also a strong showing by the multilingual Swiss. École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne takes fourth place for internationalism, followed by Geneva in fifth, ETH Zurich in seventh place and St Gallen in eighth.           

Australia has six entries in the top fifty, including Australian National (Canberra) in 25th, followed by Curtin in 26th. MIT is the USA’s highest entry in 90th place.

Why do Middle Eastern universities do so well? This is most likely for the same reasons that the University of Luxembourg finds itself in second place, the University of Hong Kong in third, the University of Macau fifth, the National University of Singapore ninth and Innsbruck in Austria finds itself in eleventh place. Small countries have a smaller student body and a smaller labour market, so circumstances pretty much force them to look abroad for both faculty and student recruitment, and to collaborate with universities outside their country’s own borders.

Qatar’s population in its most recent (2013) census was 1.8 million, of which fewer than 300,000 were Qatari citizens, so everything in Qatar is bound to be very international, not just its universities. Both the Nepali and Indian populations of Qatar, for example, outnumber Qatar’s Qatari nationals. At the last census just 19 per cent out of a total population of over eight million residents in the UAE were Emirati nationals, and these were comfortably outnumbered by resident nationals from other Arab countries.

Even much bigger Saudi Arabia, with a total population of 27 million, has a third of its population described as ‘foreigners’, according to 2014 figures from Saudi Arabia’s Central Department of Statistics and Information.

And Middle Eastern countries have seen a huge expansion of their higher education sectors – expansion at a scale and speed that outstrips the pool of talent that these countries can provide in the form of university lecturers and school leavers who make the grade for university entry. Developing countries where mass higher education is a relatively new phenomenon have little choice but to be international – they haven’t yet developed sufficient capacity in higher education and they have no choice but to rely on partnerships involving countries whose universities are more advanced.

While two Middle Eastern institutions near the top of the table have the words ‘American University of’ in their names, the US itself has a huge domestic market for student recruitment. Over 68 per cent of US high school graduates went on to ‘college’ as of late 2014, according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, although the Bureau did note a very high drop-out rate, and the New York Times had earlier that year noted that the proportion of Americans in higher education had been falling slightly since 2009.

With so many of its nationals entering higher education, many of the US’s universities have less need to recruit foreign students and staff. A comment on the THE’s world’s most international university rankings webpage noted that ‘the proportion of international students in the US commonly reflects inability to recruit PhD students within the US, where other training paths or careers might be more attractive’.

The ‘international-to-domestic staff’ and ‘international-to-domestic student’ ratios of those that top the rankings table aren’t necessarily an indicator of the diversity of the student body either. Their faculties and student intakes may not even be all that English-medium. The universities of Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia are likely to include many nationals of other Arab countries, many of them being there for education in Arabic. The Austrian and Swiss entries in the table (most of the Swiss high-fliers are in the German-speaking cantons) are probably working with a lot of students and staff in German, probably from Germany.