By Roberta Pennington for The National
Khalifa University has been ranked among the top universities in Asia following a successful merger between three Abu Dhabi higher education institutions last year.
It was among four from the UAE to be named among the top research-intensive universities in the region, according to the Times Higher Education Asia University 2018 Rankings.
Khalifa University - the country’s youngest public university formed last year by the merger of Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, the Petroleum Institute and Khalifa University of Science, Technology and Research (Kustar) - ranked 32 out of the 359 universities assessed by the Times Higher Education.
Its placement is the highest to date of any public or private university from the UAE and the second-highest of all GCC countries rated in the annual league table.
Last year, KUSTAR was placed 76, and neither Masdar nor the Petroleum Institute were listed in 2017 Asia rankings.
“There is funding, there is leadership, there is a genuine interest to elevate education in the UAE and the result is what we see [today],” said Muhamed Khalifa Al Nuaimi, director of the education affairs office at the Crown Prince's Court of Abu Dhabi.
“Every year you will find better and better students competing to get into these local universities rather than go abroad, so our top students are more inclined now to study locally, rather than abroad."
Dr Tod A Laursen, president of Khalifa University, which boasts a robotics lab and department of nuclear engineering, also said the merger has shown clear results.
“This is precisely the reason that I think the merger was done in the long run,” said Dr Laursen. “We are obviously more comprehensive now than we were before. We were all science and technology focused, but we have impact in a broader range of fields that we had before.”
United Arab Emirates University, the country’s oldest public institute of higher learning founded in 1976, also rose up the ranks, climbing 12 places to reach a standing of 71.
The American University of Sharjah was placed at 167, up from last year when it stood in the band 181-190; while the University of Sharjah, which was not rated last year, reached a band of 201-250.
Dr Laursen said he wasn’t surprised that the research universities from the UAE were rising in the ranks given the level of government support.
“If you look at what’s happened here, what’s happened in Al Ain, what’s happened in Sharjah, it is really impressive,” said Dr Laursen.
“I mean the [local and federal] governments have really made strong investments in the universities. We’ve gotten excellent support. It’s really, I think, positioned the universities well and now it’s our job to deliver. I think they’ve kind of given us the boost we needed to enter the game here.”
Also, rankings of this type are driven by research output and reputation, and both of these take time to develop, said Dr Laursen.
“Even if you look at UAEU, which is the very oldest university in the UAE, this is young by an international standard,” said Dr Laursen.
“So, part of what takes time to develop is that reputation. I think part of it is just time and maturity and I think in varying stages, UAEU, the Sharjah universities, ourselves, needed to be around for awhile so people could start to recognise what was going on here.”
The universities are judged on the same 13 performance indicators across five areas - teaching, research, citations, international outlook and industry income - that are used for the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, which is usually published in September. The weightings are specially recalibrated to reflect the priorities of Asian institutions, according to THE.
Universities that do not teach undergraduate students or had a research output less than 1,000 articles between 2012 and 2016, and a minimum of 150 a year, are excluded from consideration.
“Universities can also be excluded if 80 per cent or more of their activity is exclusively in one of our 11 subject areas,” according to the THE criteria listed on its website.
Phil Baty, editorial director of global rankings at Times Higher Education, said that "generally universities in the UAE have a highly international outlook, but they are held back by their teaching and research environments".
Twenty-four universities from the Middle East were listed in the Top 100.
Among these regional universities, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz University reached the highest standing by placing 24th. Other Middle East countries to break the Top 100 included Israel, Iran, Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Qatar.
“The overall average score of Saudi Arabia’s universities has climbed by 2.5 points since last year, with more than half of this change a result of improved research productivity (more papers per staff),” said Mr Baty.
“An increased citation impact of its scholarship was also a significant factor for the rise.
"But overall the country’s universities declined in terms of their student:staff ratio and income per staff measures.
"Saudi universities tend to be highly international and have strong relationships with industry. But they are held back by their research environments.”
Universities in East Asia dominate the 2018 rankings, with the National University of Singapore reclaiming the top spot, followed by the Tsinghua University and Peking University, which are both in China.
Dr Laursen said he expects Khalifa University to continue rising to the top of international league tables. Part of the university’s strategic plan is to break into the Top 200 in the world rankings. Last year, it moved up 150 places to score in the 301-350 bracket.
“Our aspiration is to continue to climb,” said Dr Laursen. “We really haven’t had enough time with these various rankings to have the benefits of the merger take their full effect. So, I do think the best is still ahead of us.”