In the summer of 2015 the Kurdistan Regional Government, or KRG, Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research introduced a National University Ranking as part of its attempts to promote higher education in the region.
The ultimate goal, as stated by his Excellency Dr Yusuf Goran, minister of higher education of the KRG, at the ceremony announcing the results, is to show the academic position of KRG higher education institutions and introduce a culture of academic competition among them.
The performance indicators targeted by the national ranking include, among others, teaching quality, scientific research, national and international activities and the state of libraries and laboratories. The ranking was open to 26 public and private universities and adopted a transparent method, with the data being provided by universities.
It was the first time in the history of the region, including Iraq, that such a ranking had been undertaken in the education sector and it was a risky but courageous step towards creating a scheme for evaluating KRG higher education institutions.
Doubts and fears about disappointing results and negative reactions as well as resistance were expected from university leaders and academics, especially since KRG universities have not been properly scrutinised in any previous assessment exercise at a national or international level. These doubts and expectations are normal in the early days of evaluation processes in any education system and country. What is not normal, though, is to give into those doubts and fears.
Was the ranking process a wise step? If the answer to that question is yes, then the next question is where it might lead.
Based on the positive feedback from most academics in the region, it is clear a big step has been taken in the higher education sector in the region, one that is difficult to go back on. Academics need to realise that what was tolerated in the past in terms of, for instance, low quality or less evidence-based work will no longer be acceptable.
Although most KRG university academics may wrongly interpret the goal of the ranking to be measuring the reputation of their institution, this belief will gradually fade since the main objective is to enhance the quality of education in the region.
Inevitably, institutional faculty members will pay great attention to aspects such as promoting modern and effective teaching techniques, publishing in top journals worldwide, developing academic programmes and hosting international conferences. The KRG national ranking has drawn much media and public attention. Therefore, it is reasonable to pose questions about where the ranking goes from here.
One possible step could be to lead universities towards the kind of accreditation process that normally precedes national rankings in most countries. There is no right or wrong way of doing things. The process of evaluating education quality should align with the cultural and national character of the country involved in the process.
What is appropriate for the education system in one country may not be so or even be in the interests of another elsewhere. In Nigeria, for instance, the ranking of higher education institutions was implemented at a time when none of its institutions was yet accredited (although some specific programmes were).
The ranking was part of the accreditation process. In Kurdistan, attempts to gain accreditation have begun at a couple of universities, although none of these are public institutions. The risk inherent in the accreditation process is that it exposes universities to the scrutiny of an external body, be it a governmental or non-governmental one. Among the activities conducted by this body are conducting external peer reviews, site visits and overseeing self-assessments.
Alternatively, and before an accreditation process begins, an institutional academic review could be a more easy-to-follow process conducted internally. This would see the university taking on the burden of assessing its own quality, identifying its strengths and weaknesses and acting accordingly. This would allow the institution to improve itself before any externally based assessment processes are conducted.
Setting aside the current economic crisis, which has impeded the natural flow of the higher education academic calendar at certain public universities, and other potential drawbacks, there is no doubt that the KRG national university ranking has had a great impact on universities and their performance policies.
A very obvious improvement is the tracking system universities are now focusing on to accumulate and manage their data.
The KRG’s Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, the governmental institution that runs the national ranking, has now launched a more effective methodology whereby universities can upload their data online onto a secure website using a unique password-protected account. Not uploading data at this stage could cost the university a lot. There are no excuses for making any mistakes.
Overall, the National University Ranking, or NUR as it has become known, has had a great impact on the academic development of KRG universities. It will certainly help in the benchmarking process and encourage higher education institutions to achieve excellence in their performance and the quality of education they offer in order to position themselves high in the ranking.
Lots of planning policies and strategies have been reviewed and adapted by universities as a result and more changes appear to be forthcoming. More promising results are expected from the NUR and it will form the basis for any international rankings in the, hopefully near, future.
Sameerah T Saeed
Sameerah T Saeed is assistant director of quality assurance and accreditation at the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research of the Kurdistan Regional Government.