Even Qatar seems to be overtaking Malaysia in the education stakes nowadays.
Campus in the sand
Keen to develop its higher education, Qatar has enticed US universities to set up stall in its capital city. Ian Wylie reports
Tuesday May 27, 2008
Even by the surreal standards of Doha, this ceremony took some beating. A convocation event for 122 graduating students serenaded with arias by Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli – flown in at a reported cost of £1m – and our own Royal Philharmonic concert orchestra, interrupted only by the evening call to prayer. In attendance, the emir and his wife, the sheikh of neighbouring Dubai … oh, and South African president Thabo Mbeki, who just happened to be passing through.The campus of palm trees and plastic grass in the Qatari capital is home to Education City, a collection of (so far) American universities lured to the Gulf by Qatar’s petrodollars and an opportunity to engage in some overseas expansion after post-9/11 visa restrictions stemmed the flow of foreign students to the US. And these students, mostly young Qataris, were the first cohort to graduate from Education City.
The world’s third biggest source of natural gas, Qatar has the highest GDP per capita in the world bar Luxembourg, plus zero income tax rates. It is home to al-Jazeera and the US’s regional central command military bases. Still, Qatar labours in the shadow of the neighbouring emirates and Saudi Arabia, but, like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the city of Doha wakes and sleeps to the sound of pneumatic drills. Skyscrapers rise from the sand almost overnight, built by low-paid workers from the Indian subcontinent. The economy is growing at more than 30% per annum, but like its larger rivals, this small desert peninsula is seeking to diversify out of fossil fuels and invest its billions in more sustainable sectors.
Qatar has its own sovereign wealth fund – the Qatar Investment Authority – which has bought London’s Chelsea Barracks and has been building stakes in Sainsbury’s and the London Stock Exchange.
But the Qatar Foundation is a sovereign wealth fund of a very different kind. Chaired by the emir’s wife, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser al-Missned, the non-profit foundation exists primarily to overhaul education within the state and prepare its small indigenous population for life beyond oil and gas-dependency.
It’s a huge job. Around 80% of Qatar’s 900,000 people are foreign workers with temporary residence status, with nine out of 10 young Qataris seemingly content to push paper in the country’s heavily bureaucratic public sector.
Higher education is a hot topic around the Gulf. In Abu Dhabi, New York University is bringing an entire campus to town. North of Jeddah on the Red Sea coast, the Saudis have just begun hiring academics for Kaust, their version of MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).
In contrast, Qatar has adopted a multi-billion-dollar pick-and-mix approach. Virginia Commonwealth University brought its design courses, Georgetown its liberal arts programme, Texas A&M its engineering courses, Carnegie Mellon its business and computer science, and Weill Cornell its pre-med and MD programmes.
Typically, the universities have signed a contract to run their campuses for 10 years. But the cost of running each campus – estimated at around £10m a year – is met by the foundation. The salaries paid to academics teaching in Qatar are comparable with the US, but bonuses and housing allowances can push earnings well into six figures.
It could have been a very costly white elephant. But the arrival to this 2,500-acre site of Ivy League Cornell and, from September, the well-regarded schools of journalism and communication from Northwestern, are encouraging. And Oxbridge is in the sights of Dr Abdulla Ali al-Thani, vice-chair of the Qatar Foundation and the man charged with finding new partners. “We would like a law programme,” said Thani, who holds an engineering doctorate from Southampton University. “Northwestern and Georgetown both have strong law programmes, and we have a strong relationship with Duke University. Discussions with Oxford and Cambridge are ongoing, but whether that will flourish or not, I don’t know. Dealings with European institutions happen more slowly, but we would very much like a European institution to be here.”
The foundation came close to signing up Insead in 2006, but pulled the plug when it discovered the French business school was also chatting up authorities in Abu Dhabi. Carnegie Mellon, which currently offers a graduate certificate in entrepreneurship, might be one of a handful of business schools asked to offer MBAs and executive business education.
“We will invite different schools to provide different executive education modules, according to their strengths,” said Thani. “So Northwestern might teach media management, Wharton finance and Kellogg marketing. No single school could offer all those strengths, but we could, by providing a platform for all these schools to offer modules here in Qatar.”
The Education City limits take in an independent school, a leadership academy, learning centre for children with learning difficulties and, from next year, a music academy for the Qatar symphony orchestra. The city has a science and technology park, run by former Imperial College pro rector Dr Tidu Maini, where tenants include Shell and Microsoft. And 2010 sees the opening of a 350-bed medical care and research centre with a £4bn endowment.
But the flagship project is the university development of buildings designed by architects including Ibrahim Mohammed Jaidah and Arata Isozaki. And to ensure its sustainability beyond the emir’s beneficence, the foundation will operate several commercial interests, including a convention centre and a mobile phone licence.
In most cases, student selection is carried out by the universities’ admissions offices back in the US and according to the same selection criteria. Just over half of the current 1,130 students are Qataris – the aim says Thani is to increase that to 70% once the development is complete and the student population has reached 8,000. The remainder comprise another 46 nationalities: Egyptians, Indians, Lebanese, Syrians, Americans – and even four Brits.
Importing US campuses has helped to break down barriers to co-ed learning. The Texas A&M dean, Marck Weichold, says the percentage of women on its engineering courses in Doha is 38% – double the proportion on its Texas campus.
Typically, half the lectures at Education City are delivered by US-based lecturers, posted to Doha for between six months and three years, or by post-docs. But the other half have been hired specifically to work in Doha. Interior design assistant professor Liam Colquhoun, a graduate of Napier University in Edinburgh, was recruited to Qatar by Virginia Commonwealth in 2003. “When I arrived, the development of Education City was well under way, but it has changed so much since then, it is difficult to imagine what it might be like five years from now,” he says. “The curriculum strictly follows that of the home campus in Virginia. In the west, design students generally enter university with a little more experience of design, but I think working with students who have fewer preconceptions about the field can be a benefit. They haven’t been told what is ‘good design’ and so bring an original perspective to their work.”
Would he recommend academic life in Qatar? “Being here is not for everyone,” he says. “Like any developing country there are growing pains that can be frustrating, but the pros far outweigh the cons as far as I am concerned. Although a bacon sandwich would be nice from time to time.”