By Ameen Amjad Khan. Ministers of higher education and research fro 57 countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation agreed to a "fresh look" at university systems in their countries, at an IOC meeting in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh on Wednesday. There was a need to reexamine higher education quality and relevance "in view of the demands of the market forces of knowledge economies," the ministers said, and to implement key performance indicators.
The meeting decided to encourage universities in the OIC region to improve standards and increase their potential to become world-class institutions.
The extraordinary ministerial meeting also agreed to encourage excellence by establishing academic links with universities and research institutions in the advanced world, to benefit from the West's experiences in quality and technological innovation.
Declaring international cooperation a key performance indicator, the meeting adopted various resolutions aimed at modernising Muslim world universities by attracting international faculty and students, rewarding academics for having foreign degrees, and growing international cooperation through activities such as twinning, visiting scholars, service contracts, collaborative research, split degree programmes and international conferences.
The meeting noted with concern some of the flaws in world university ranking systems and agreed that "results and acceptance of those rankings have not always been consistent or agreeable". The ministers urged IOC countries to review rankings critically, to bring logic and sense to the issue which, the meeting observed, "is witnessing growing criticism from many educationists and decision-makers around the world".
Last week's OIC meeting was a continuation of a high-profile session of ministers of higher education and research held in Kuala Lumpur a year ago, which decided to prepare a document, "Key Performance Indicators for Universities in the Islamic World" in order to "reorient universities' procedures and mechanisms to best suit international standards".
The meeting heard that it was not only research output that should make a university qualify for ranking. Key performance indicators should also include good governance, academic freedom, adequate facilities, continued funding, quality of faculty, international collaborations, multidisciplinary programmes and socio-economic impact.
The document, adopted unanimously at last week's meeting, proposes learning from success stories in higher education performance and finding ways to introduce the key performance indicators in university systems in the 57 members states of the Jeddah-based OIC, the second biggest forum after the United Nations.
It provides guidelines and advice on developing higher education practices in the OIC states, and recommends establishing support units on campuses for patent registration and encouraging the transformation of patents into marketable products to support the transition to knowledge-based economies.
The document will be sent through proper channels to universities "for their self-assessment and adoption of measures recommended in it," former vice-chancellor of Islamabad's Quaid-e-Azam University, Qasim Jan, told University World News. He is an OIC expert involved in drafting the document,
"The guidelines adopted during this meeting shall help enhance our universities' reputations and international presence and [their] acceptability in this globalised era," said Jan, who is also advisor to the OIC Standing Committee on Scientific and Technological Cooperation headquartered in Pakistan.
The new approach to ranking universities in the Islamic world took inspiration from two keynote speakers at the UNESCO forum on "Rankings and Accountability in Higher Education", held in Paris in May.
The key document adopted at that meeting quoted Barbara Ischinger, director for education at the OECD, as saying that "the rankings that we currently have available -for all the care that goes into compiling them - fall short of capturing the range and depth of what universities and other higher education institutions do".
It also refers to Ellen Hazelkorn, head of the Higher Education Policy Research Unit in Dublin, saying "governments should stop obsessing about global rankings and the top 1% - they risk transforming their higher education system and institutions, and subverting other policy objectives, to conform to indicators designed by others for other purposes".
The quality assessment criteria as laid down in the key performance indicators document, assigns 45% weight to research, 35% to teaching standards, 10% to international outlook, 3% to facilities and resources and 7% to socio-economic impact. The weighting for teaching universities is different: 50% for teaching, 15% for international outlook, 5% for facilities, 15% for socio-economic impact and 15 % for research.
An OIC expert at the meeting, Hassanuddeen Abdul Aziz from International Islamic University of Malaysia, told University World News: "Through this all-inclusive guide for university performance enhancement we hope to increase the production of skilled manpower and bring about excellence in research through international collaboration."
Hassan added: "We aim to bridge the gap between OIC member states' universities and their international counterparts anywhere in the world, and seek to empower our universities to have better impact on their societies to turn them into knowledge-based economies."
Suggesting performance targets, the ministers agreed that Islamic nations should accelerate the process to increase their share of world scientific production to 14% and increase research and development spending to at least 1.4% of their gross domestic products by 2020, a decision taken by heads of state of Islamic countries at a summit in Malaysia in 2003.
The meeting, hosted by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, was organised by the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (ISESCO), headquartered in the Moroccan capital Rabat.