“Education City is the boldest experiment in higher education in the history of the university,” James Reardon Anderson, the then dean of Georgetown University School of Foreign Service at Qatar said in May as another batch of students graduated from the desert campus in Doha.

Few would challenge that statement, for what has been achieved is remarkable. Education City is a vast, 14-square-kilometre site on the western edge of the city. It is being developed by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science & Community Development, a non-profit organisation founded in 1995 by Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani to lead the country’s transformation into a modern, knowledge-based economy.

Little more than 13 years ago, Education City was a barren patch of land. Today, it is home to branch campuses of six leading US universities.

Over the past two decades, Qatar has become one of the wealthiest nations on the planet through exploiting its abundant oil and gas resources. But acutely aware of the finite nature of these reserves, Sheikh Hamad set in motion a programme of reforms to turn Qatar into an advanced economy by 2030, one that is both capable of sustaining its own development after its hydrocarbons resources have been exhausted, and of providing a high standard of living for all its citizens.

Changing society

At the heart of this initiative lies the principle that education is the basis for societal change, and that by unleashing the potential of its people through better training and development, Qatar will be assured a prosperous future.

“The most important vector for change is education,” says Fathy Saoud, president of the Qatar Foundation. “The better you educate people, the more engaged participants they are in society. But you cannot force change, -otherwise it will create problems within the community.”

The Qatar Foundation’s response to the emir’s challenge has been to introduce a Western model of education into the country, concentrated on a single site, to offer an alternative to the state-run system. It began in 1996 by establishing the private, co-educational Qatar Academy, which offers education from pre-school age to university entrance level. The curriculum is based on the International Baccalaureate and lessons are all in English.

It then set about inviting Western univer-sities to open branch campuses in Doha. The first to accept was the US’ Virginia Commonwealth University, which began offering degrees in fashion, graphic and interior design in 1998. The US’ Weill Cornell Medical College followed in 2002 and a year later the US’ Texas A&M University began offering chemical, electrical, mechanical and petroleum engineering undergraduate courses.

The US’ Carnegie Mellon University then launched its business administration and computer science degrees in 2004, and the US’ Georgetown University opened the School of Foreign Service in Qatar, offering studies in international affairs, in 2005.

The most recent institution to set up at the campus is the US’ Northwestern University, which offers journalism and communication programmes. The Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies is the only non-international undergraduate school on the campus. The faculty opened in 2007 and is not classified as a university.

State education in Qatar, like elsewhere in the Arab world, is rigidly academic, and for years it has failed to provide students with the practical life skills demanded by the modern labour market. Foreign firms operating in the country have struggled to find suitably qualified locals to employ, which has left Qatar heavily reliant on imported labour.

Each of the universities invited to set up at Education City has been specifically chosen because its courses align with the needs of a modern economy. This strategy is also intended to ensure that the graduates can be certain of career opportunities upon leaving university. In this way, the Qatar Foundation aims to create a sustainable circle of talent and employment, and in the process make Qataris the employees of choice in their own country.

Mixed institutions

Like the Qatar Academy, the universities are co-educational and the lectures are given in English. The teaching emphasis is on analy-tical and critical thinking, creativity and innovation. Instilling this new way of thinking in the younger generation is the main focus for Education City. Freed from the constraints of rote learning, it is hoped that they will come up with enterprising business ideas that will contribute to the growth of the non-hydrocarbon economy.

The Qatar Foundation has been able to attract these institutions to Doha by agreeing to cover all their operating and management costs for at least 10 years, in addition to paying a fee to the parent campus and providing state-of-the-art, purpose-built facilities.

The financial commitment is substantial. The contract signed with Weill Cornell is estimated to be worth $750m over 10 years. Virginia Commonwealth has an annual budget of about $20m, while Texas A&M’s is $55m. In the 2007-08 academic year, operating costs for Texas A&M’s Qatar campus totalled $44m, representing almost 80 per cent of its budget.

A key element of the Qatar Foundation’s agreements with the universities is that they follow the same curricula as at the home campus, charge the same tuition fees and employ the same admission standards. To ensure a strong pipeline of prospective students, it was decided students of any nationality able to meet the entry criteria would be eligible for a place at Education City. Nonetheless, it was envisaged that about three-quarters of students would be Qatari nationals.

The tuition fees at Education City campuses are about $40,000 a year, depending on the university. The fees of Qatari students are covered by the state, while many of the other students enter on scholarships, or are sponsored by companies, for which they work for an agreed time after graduation.

The Qatar Foundation also offers interest-free loans to international students. They 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. Room and board in university accommodation amounts to about QR7,000 ($1,900) a semester.

In the years since the first university opened at Education City in 1998, several hundred students have graduated. Many of these, for financial or cultural reasons, would have been unable to go to the US to study. But their horizons have been similarly expanded through the efforts of the Qatar Foundation, under the guidance of its chairwoman and consort of the emir, Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser al-Misned, to bring leading universities to Doha.

Setting up these institutions at Education City has not been without its difficulties. For example, the universities used to teaching native English speakers have had to learn to work with students for whom English is a second or third language. In particular, students have struggled to attain the standards required in written assignments, so each university has had to make extra language support available.

Smaller classes

The class sizes at Education City are generally much smaller than at the universities’ home campuses. While the low student-to-teacher ratio has given students more interaction and individual attention, it has limited the range of courses that can be offered and the number of teaching staff that can be hired. Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar says in its 2007 annual report that its small size is one of its greatest challenges.

From the outset, the Qatar Foundation has adopted a policy of only starting construction of individual facilities after a university has set up at Education City. This is less because of cautious spending and more to encourage the institutions to start their courses as quickly as possible, to gain a better understanding of their facilities requirements and to involve them in the design of the buildings.

While this strategy has brought outstanding results in terms of the finished designs, numerous logistical and planning challenges have been encountered. In some cases, universities have had to move building several times.

There are also concerns over the low numbers of Qatari students enrolling at Education City. Although the Qatar Foundation wants the site to become a centre of excellence for the region, its primary motivation for the project was to improve the calibre of the local workforce.

The percentage of Qatari nationals among those studying at Education City is falling short of the foundation’s 70-75 per cent target. In the 2007-08 academic year, Education City had a student population of 2,647, of which 50.8 per cent were Qataris. Although the number of locals gaining admission has risen since the Academic Bridge programme was established in 2001 to help those educated in public high schools in Qatar achieve the entry standards required, as enrolments at Education City in general have risen, the percentage of the student body that is Qatari has declined.

Each university says increasing the percentage of Qataris is a key priority. Most have either introduced an additional pre-programme or are allowing students in the Academic Bridge programme to attend lectures at the university.

Given the limited pool of applicants, the universities have also found themselves competing with each other to attract students.

Furthermore, many students are applying to more than one establishment at the same time to be sure of studying at Education City. In the 2007-08 admissions cycle, more than half of the candidates offered a place by the School of Foreign Service in Qatar were also admitted to one or more of the other campuses.

It is no secret that the Qatar Foundation has found it a challenge to convince universities to establish a branch at Doha, and the six located there today are all from the US.

Leading UK institutions have proven reluctant to get on board because of concerns over the logistics of running two branches and the danger that this could damage their centuries-old reputations.

UK universities

“We have tried and are still trying to bring to Education City one of the top universities from the UK,” says Saoud. “But they still have concerns about establishing a degree programme outside the main campus.”

The Qatar Foundation is continuing its efforts to bring in new institutions, and in the near future it hopes to be able to offer a law degree, conservation and archeology programmes, as well as management and executive learning.

Education City was initially expected to have tens of thousand students, and as many as 15 universities. But Saoud now says it will be home to no more than 5,000 students and 10 universities. This scaling down of ambitions has no doubt been influenced by the practicalities of managing such a giant operation. The Qatar Foundation has had to learn on the run. It has been accused of struggling to keep pace with its own growth, and at times lacking in effective communication, but this is perhaps not surprising given the size of the undertaking and the speed with which it has been implemented.

“Education City is an immense undertaking so of course there have been headaches,” says Edwin Eisendrath, managing director of US-based higher education consultant Huron Consulting Group. “There have prob-ably been headaches every day, but there has also been great joy, especially when you see the students graduating.”

Overall, the positives have far outweighed the negatives and a unique centre of learning is taking shape in Doha. How Education City will ultimately function has yet to be defined and it remains a work in progress. But the Qatar Foundation hopes to build on the individual and combined strengths of the universities located at Education City to create a multi-disciplinary institution.

Education City is being called a multiversity. Students are increasingly encouraged to take courses at other faculties to broaden their educational experience. Summer courses have been offered that combine classes from more than one institution, and Carnegie Mellon and Northwestern University have even jointly hired faculty members. The temporary sharing of buildings has helped in this regard, encouraging communication and collaboration between the institutions.

But Education City is more than just these higher education establishments. 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, and the headquarters of the Qatar Foundation.

More facilities are being added. A central library is due to open in 2010, with resources for pre-school children through to postgrad-uate researchers. The Qatar National Con-vention Centre and the Sidra Medical & Research Centre, which has been set up with a $7.9bn endowment, will open in 2011 and 2012 respectively.

The site also accommodates the Qatar Science & Technology Park, a $600m innovation centre where technology can be developed and commercialised, and the Al-Shaqab equestrian centre. Eventually, the Qatar Foundation intends for Education City to be linked to the rest of Doha by an underground light rail network. There are also plans for a hotel and golf course.

Education City was conceived when oil prices were below $20 a barrel, but the recent oil boom has enabled the Qatar Foun-dation to create something extraordinary. There have been some extravagant displays of spending – pop singer Enrique Iglesias was flown in at an estimated cost of $1.5m to entertain the May 2009 graduates, who were also rewarded for their efforts with ceremonial rings of white gold and diamonds rumoured to be worth $10,000.

The universities, while not complaining, comment that money is thrown at them to speed up the project. The Qatar Foundation is currently in the enviable position of being able to afford to do this.

Yet at the same time, it is taking steps to ensure that Education City’s contribution to Qatari society will be enduring, by creating an endowment that will enable the site to sustain itself in the future when there are no oil and gas revenues. “It is a significant investment, but we think this is the best investment for the future of this country and the region,” says Saoud.

Certainly many more challenges lie ahead for the Qatar Foundation, but its efforts in the educational arena have already started to change the course of the country’s future. The Education City project has inspired reforms in the public education system. The new universities in particular have collaborated closely with Qatar University.

“If Qatar University is much better than six years ago it is because this is part of the plan,” says Saoud.

He adds that Education City is intended to be a model for excellence in the country and not an island of excellence.

Perhaps the boldest element of the Education City story is its timing. The Qatar Foun-dation has managed to achieve all this at a time when relations between the Middle East and the Western world have been strained. Education City has been set up against the backdrop of war in Iraq, a global terror campaign by Al-Qaeda, and revelations of plans by former US president George W Bush to bomb the Doha headquarters of news broadcaster Al-Jazeera. That the Qatar Foundation was able to convince leading US universities to open up in Doha against this backdrop is remarkable.