It came as no surprise for me to learn that the latest annual ranking of the world’s top 500 universities contained not a single Arab university. Israel, on the other hand, got seven listings out of the total of 500.
The real surprise, however, has been the ongoing din and palaver from Arab writers in the media as well as academics and intellectuals who wanted to know why our universities were not on the list.
To them, I say tell me the name of one Arab university that qualifies to be on the list. Tell me one Arab university that can stand side by side with Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Stanford, the Sorbonne or a number of other justly famous world-renowned universities.
Universities are rated by various indicators related to both academic and research performance. This includes university alumni and staff who win international prizes and awards, internationally significant research, published articles and academic performance. For each indicator, the highest scoring institution is assigned a score of 100 and other institutions are calculated as a percentage of that top score.
The distribution of data for each indicator is examined for any significant distorting effect; standard statistical techniques are used to adjust the indicator if necessary. Scores for each indicator are weighted to arrive at a final overall score for an institution.
Although there are hundreds of educational institutions in our region, they still follow old methods and techniques which were first used several hundred years ago. We continue to use them even though the world beyond our borders is living in — and reacting to — the era of discovery and the age of electronic information.
Under the pressure of sheer numbers of students and other considerations, including the financial one, our universities have become little more than large buildings full of students. The only thing about them that would indicate they are universities is the banner bearing the magic word “university” which is displayed everywhere.
While universities in other parts of the world compete with each other to produce distinguished academic research, ours busy themselves with elementary academic matters, spending their time discussing admissions, ceremonies and conferences while ignoring and distancing themselves from the genuine concerns and problems of their societies.
It is no wonder that seven Israeli universities appear on the list or that Israel rates 12 out of the 35 countries with the world’s top 500 universities.
Incidentally, the list was not produced by any European or American agency; it has nothing to do with either the CIA or Mossad. It came from the Institute of Higher Education, Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China.