Parents, siblings and students filled out the white marble ceremonial court at Education City on 5 May 2009 as the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science & Community Development staged its second annual senior convocation ceremony.

Close to 200 students celebrated their graduation that evening from five of the six universities based at the campus, located on the western edge of Doha. Among them were the first ever graduates from Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar.

As with all the recent events and inaugurations hosted by the Qatar Foundation, there was a palpable sense of history in the making that night. Here was the human capital with which Doha intends to transform its economy; the workforce of the future.

Education City is the most visible sign of  the foundation’s commitment to being the catalyst for change in Qatar. It has invested billions of dollars in building state-of-the art facilities and spent many hours negotiating with international universities to encourage them to set up a branch campus in Qatar.

The first to accept this invitation was Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), which began offering degrees in fashion, graphic and interior design in 1998. Weill Cornell Medical College followed in 2002 and a year later, Texas A&M University began offering chemical, electrical, mechanical and petroleum engineering undergraduate courses.

International schools

Carnegie Mellon University launched its business administration and computer science degrees in 2004, and Georgetown University began offering studies in international affairs in 2005. As the most recent addition, joining in 2008, Northwestern University has yet to have students graduate from its journalism and communication programmes.

The Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies is the only non-international undergraduate school on the campus. It opened in 2007 and is not classified as a university.

The international universities invited to set up at Education City offer their degrees under 10-year service agreements with the Qatar Foundation, which require them to meet agreed performance targets such as student numbers and the range of courses offered. In return, the foundation provides the infrastructure and covers the operating and management costs of the institutions.

Crucially, the foundation insists that the universities offer courses identical to those taught at the main campus and enforce the same entry criteria. In addition, the Qatar Foundation has chosen only to invite universities with a heavy focus on research.

“Education alone cannot produce quality,” says Fathy Saoud, president of the Qatar Foundation. “Particularly at university level, you have to integrate education and research.

“It is important not just to convey know-ledge, but to give students the skills to generate knowledge. Through the generation of know-ledge we can get innovation, creativity and new technologies.”

Both students and lecturers will undertake research projects at Education City and a wide variety are already under way. VCU has been investigating how to engage the Qatari audience and encourage them to read more in order to raise literacy rates. It is also looking at street signs across the country and how they can communicate their message better.

Georgetown has been researching inter-national migration and the flow of labour in and out of the Gulf as well as political relations between the six GCC states. Projects under way at Carnegie Mellon include studies on traffic light co-ordination for emergency vehicles and the building of an English and Arabic speaking ‘roboceptionist’.

Although Texas A&M has yet to commence its research, the university has already garnered $20m in funding, including $13m from the Qatar Foundation’s funding agency, the Qatar National Research Fund (QNRF), under its National Priorities Research Programme.

Of all the universities, however, Weill Cornell has the most ambitious research strategy. It has launched a biomedical research programme that will look at genetic and molecular medicine, women’s and children’s health, gene therapy, stem cells and vaccine development. The programme has been granted $45m in funding from the QNRF and aims to recruit 120 mid-career scientists to the project over the next five years.

Weill Cornell will collaborate with Hamad Medical Corporation on the project and the Sidra Medical & Research Centre when it opens at Education City in 2012. In April, researchers from Weill Cornell successfully mapped the date palm genome in a proof-of-concept project, and are expected soon to get the go-ahead to sequence the Qatari genome.

As private institutions, the universities charge fees to their students. To attend George-town University in Qatar costs $40,000 a year and degree courses last four years. Room and board in university accommodation amounts to about QR7,000 ($1,922) a semester. Qatari students have their fees paid by the state.

At least 50 per cent of the students at Education City originate from other countries in the Middle East and beyond, and they often seek sponsorship from companies to cover their fees. They then work for the firm for an agreed number of years after graduation.

The Qatar Foundation also offers interest-free loans to international students, who have two repayment options after completing their course. They can either pay it off using 15 per cent of their salary each year, or if they take a job in Qatar with a company deemed to be doing work that is helping to develop the country, the Qatar Foundation will wipe off one year of debt for each year completed.

This forms part of the Qatar Foundation’s strategy to retain the talent it has nurtured in Qatar. With half the students at Education City being non-Qatari nationals, there is a danger that they will return to their home country after university, taking with them their knowledge and expertise.

“We do not want the students to leave Qatar after graduating,” says Saoud. “We do not want to export these competent graduates, we want them to contribute to the growth of the Qatari economy and society.”

This is where the vision of the Qatar Foundation and its investments come together. For the students to want to remain in Qatar, there has to be an attractive pool of jobs on offer.

The idea initially is that having exposed the students to research, they will want to participate in the numerous projects being funded by the QNRF. Thereafter, it is hoped that with the focus on commercialising the results of these research projects, there will be a whole raft of start-up companies in the Qatar Science & Technology Park – an innovation centre set up by the Qatar Foundation – in the years to come that will provide career opportunities to graduates from Education City.

In this manner, the Qatar Foundation aims to create a sustainable circle of talent and employment that will ensure the country remains prosperous after its natural resources have been depleted.

Another element of this strategy will be the addition of postgraduate courses at Education City. Students wishing to continue their studies currently have to go overseas, but VCU will launch its master’s degree programme this year and Texas A&M and Georgetown universities are discussing programmes for the next academic year.

Education City remains very much a work in progress. Massive construction projects are ongoing, and will be for many years yet. The 14-square-kilometre site does not just accommodate universities; it is also home to the junior and senior schools of the Qatar Academy, the Learning Center School, which helps children with learning difficulties, the Al-Jazeera Children’s Channel, as well as the headquarters of the Qatar Foundation. And more facilities are being added.

“Education City is a unique model,” says Abdeli Haoudi, vice-president of research for the Qatar Foundation. “It is not one university doing one thing. It is a set of different institutions, companies and centres. But this mosaic of programmes is all geared to lead to one vision.”

Further development

A central library is due to open in 2010 and the Qatar National Convention Centre and the ultra-modern teaching and research hospital Sidra will open in 2011 and 2012 respectively. Demand for student accommodation is exceeding supply and a larger complex of residences is under construction. Eventually, the Qatar Foundation intends for Education City to be linked to the rest of Doha by a light-rail network.

Although the cost for each Qatari graduate may be exorbitant, the Qatar Foundation’s investments in education have initiated a change in direction for the country.

About 1,000 graduates have now obtained degrees at Education City. Many were students who might otherwise have been denied the chance to attend a leading international university. They have had their horizons broadened by the experience and as a result are now better prepared to work in the modern, globalised workplace.