Friday, April 22, 2011
Arabs And International Rankings
By Ahmad Y. Majdoubeh
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 22/04/2011
Sadly but predictably, Arabs are not faring well in international rankings. For years, we have been disappointed with the international standings of our athletes, movie stars, musicians, singers, journalists, writers, industrialists, inventors, etc. They were either totally absent from international ratings or occupied humble slots.
The trend continues. Recently (for about half a decade), we have become extremely disappointed with the status of our universities in the world. Initially, not one single Arab university appeared in the best 200 or 500 universities; now one or two appear sporadically at the lower end of the list of 500.
More recently still (in the past couple of days, to be exact), our disappointment has grown to encompass our culinary skills.
“Even in cooking!!” said a startled friend of mine.
A couple of days ago, I was following the news about the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants competition. After long debates and discussions, the judges voted Noma, a Danish restaurant in Copenhagen, as the best restaurant in the world. The said restaurant “was crowned the world’s best restaurant for the second year in a row in an annual list, beating out eateries in Spain, Italy, Britain, the United States and elsewhere”.
Upon hearing the result, I rushed to the Internet to look at the list of the other 49 restaurants, with the wish, deep inside, that the “elsewhere” could probably include an Arab restaurant.
Maybe we will fare better in cooking than in higher education. After all, what does cooking entail?
I was disappointed. The list contained restaurants from Spain, Italy, the US, the UK, Germany, Mexico, Singapore, Japan, Finland, South Africa, Peru, Russia, etc., but not one single Arab restaurant.
When the two famous higher-education rankings - by the Times Higher Education Supplement and the Shanghai University - of the best 200 and 500 universities in the world, respectively, came out a few years ago, many in the world of academia were shocked that there was not one single Arab university among them.
“Not one even in the 500,” a devastated friend of mine said.
It was devastating. After all, we have for decades been singing our universities’ praise as beacons of knowledge and wisdom, symbols of the best in our modern-day civilisation. And now, all of a sudden, they are not worth much internationally.
Those who were angered and insulted - after all the rankings touched a sensitive nerve in the Arab world, national pride - responded with denial or with suspicion. What are these rankings, after all? Are they not culturally and politically biased?
Some even saw them as part of the overall “Zionist” or “Western” conspiracy against the Arab nation (forgetting somehow that Shanghai is in China).
Those who were devastated or provoked lamented the sad state of our universities, proclaiming our higher education sector as either dead or dying, and prescribing urgent solutions of all sorts: one strategy after another, swift changes of by-laws, replacement of persons, hardline decisions on one front and wholesale concessions on another. All (not only government officials, but also taxi drivers and waiters) became self-appointed experts on higher education, and all try to contribute, primarily in negative ways.
The changes made were largely impromptu and cosmetic, leaving the core - effective teaching and learning, professional assessment, hiring of star professors, appointment of able administrators, implementation of real quality tools and processes - almost untouched. There were some short-lived, sincere attempts, but the overall picture was that of panic, till this very day.
To those who believe in the conspiracy theory, one says: Maybe there is one against our professors, scientists and innovators (of course, there is not) but against our cooks and restaurants? Wake up and smell the hummus!
One would also tell them that university rankings - like those of Miss Universe, the Best Athlete of the Year, the best movie or song, etc. - provide good indicators and good lessons.
As one expert declared at a conference on rankings I attended in Istanbul a couple of years ago, “rankings are here to stay; you had better deal with them”.
But how do you understand them? How do you deal with them?
The first is that if a university or a restaurant does not appear among the best 500 or 50, it does not mean it is bad. It just means it is not among the best in the world. So it could be fair or good, but not very good or excellent.
I always say that the quality of our institutions, our athletes, our movie stars, our singers, our performance in general, is like the quality of our streets, sidewalks or the yellow/white paint on our roads.
Second, the comparison in the rankings is with the best in the world. One is comparing oneself to giants and stars. Those who have lost faith in our institutions should remember that when we had faith in them in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, we were considering them in a national or a regional context, not international. In this globalised world of ours, we now compare globally.
Third, a university is not just an inspired teacher standing in front of brilliant students. It is much more: a whole culture and a huge process of planning, training, learning, discipline, systematic implementation, sustained quality, thorough documentation, ongoing assessment, development, improvement, collective thinking, teamwork, etc.
The same applies to restaurants.
We have a long way to go. But before we embark on this way, we need to ask ourselves a basic question: Do we want to get into the competition? Do we want to be among the elite in the world? If the answer is no, then we have to accept our humble status and develop it in a way which suit our own humble needs and purposes.
If the answer is yes, we have to think, plan and implement rationally, maturely, sincerely, professionally and very patiently.
Are we able to do that?