Gulf taps into Western educational expertise

05 January 2010

In a bid to develop tertiary education, Gulf states are luring international universities to open colleges in the region, but there are concerns about the quality of education on offer

In a quest to move their economies away from a dependency on hydrocarbons rev-enues, the GCC governments have pledged ever-larger proportions of their annual budgets to education and have begun to bring their academic qualifications in line with international standards.   

Since 2000, the Gulf has been successful in wooing world-class educational institutions, including the UK’s Imperial College London, France’s Paris-Sorbonne University and the US’ Weill Cornell Medical College, to open campuses in the region.

Key Fact

  • Starting with just 41 students in 2004, Carnegie Mellon’s Qatar campus now has 246 undergraduates

“In partnering with these universities, not only do we benefit from their high academic standards but they also provide their own standard of accreditation. We have chosen this approach to reforming our education because it is much more efficient than trying to change existing institutions,” says Jim Mienczakowski, head of higher education at the Abu Dhabi Education Council (Adec), which has been responsible for bringing top French business school Insead and the Sorbonne University to Abu Dhabi in the past few years.

Joining forces

Qatar is also adopting a partnering approach through its Education City project, which has developed at a remarkable speed. Little more than 13 years ago, Education City was a barren patch of land. Today, the 14-square-kilometre site on the edge of Doha is home to branch campuses of six leading US universities.

The first to set up was the Virginia Commonwealth University in 1998 and it was followed by the Weill Cornell Medical College, Texas A&M University, Carnegie Mellon University, Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service and Northwestern University. 

The mix of academic establishments has been chosen to align with the needs of a modern economy and to address the skills shortage faced by the region.

Texas A&M University, for example, offers chemical, electrical, mechanical and petroleum engineering undergraduate courses, while Carnegie Mellon focuses on business administration and computer science degrees.          

The Education City project is being developed by the Qatar Foundation for Education, Science & Community Development, which was set up in 1995 with a mandate to make Qatar a leader in innovative education and research.

The foundation has been able to attract top institutions through a substantial financial commitment covering all operating and management costs for at least 10 years. The contract with Weill Cornell, for instance, is estimated to be worth $750m over a decade. 

However, the institutions resident at the campus are keen to point out that these hefty financial incentives have not compromised their academic credibility. 

“This approach is much more efficient than trying to change existing institutions”

Jim Mienczakowski, Abu Dhabi Education Council

“We are not ‘like’ Carnegie Mellon or just ‘inspired by’ it – we are Carnegie Mellon,” says Charles Thorpe, dean of Carnegie Mellon University in Education City. “Our degrees do not say Carnegie Mellon Qatar –  they just say Carnegie Mellon. That is important, because it gives us the same stamp of quality.”

Indeed, a fundamental agreement made between the Qatar Foundation and the six universities is that they must employ the same admissions standards and follow the same curricula as the home campus. In this way, the universities have the authority to claim that their degrees are the academic equivalent of those awarded in the US.

Transplanting the model has not been without its difficulties. English is a second or third language for many of the Qatari students and consequently, some have struggled to attain the required standards for written assignments.

EducationCity has sought to overcome this by establishing the Academic Bridge Programme, set up in 2001 to boost the chances of those educated in public high schools in Qatar to achieve the entry standards required.

“This is an additional year of secondary school or a first year of community college, which teaches intensive English and maths to help get the kids up to speed,” says Thorpe.

But in July 2009, controversy was sparked when it emerged that the average scholastic assessment test (SAT) scores of students being granted admission to some of the branch campuses in Education City were lower than at their US counterparts.

Equal footing

The SAT is a standardised test for US college and university admissions, which comprises three parts: reading, writing and mathematics, each scored between 200 and 800.

A spokeswoman for Carnegie Mellon’s Qatar branch and James Reardon-Anderson, the dean of the School of Foreign Service in Qatar, both confirmed that SAT scores of incoming students were lower than at the home campus.

But Carnegie Mellon is making headway in growing its student body. It opened in 2004 with an intake of 41 students and there are now 246 undergraduates enrolled at the Qatar campus. It is growing in popularity and received 1,095 applications from prospective students for the 2009-10 academic year, compared with 657 a year earlier. Since Education City introduced its educational partnerships into the region, the number of branch campuses has proliferated.

A hallmark of the newest institutions has been their strong focus on research and development, especially in the fields of oil and gas and renewable energy.

In 2007, Abu Dhabi established the Masdar Institute of Science & Technology (Mist), a graduate-level, research-oriented university that focuses on alternative energy, sustainability and the environment.

Mist is modelled on Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US, one of the world’s best-known institutions for teaching and research in science and technology, which will be providing it with academic assessment and advice.

International standards In October 2007, Abu Dhabi announced that it would be opening a branch campus of New York University (NYU). Research will be integral to the undergraduate experience at NYU Abu Dhabi, and will also drive the university’s graduate programmes.  

“We are in the middle of recruiting our first class of 100 students, who will begin study in the autumn of 2010,” says Josh Taylor, senior director for international communications at NYU Abu Dhabi. “More than 500 students applied to NYU Abu Dhabi for the first round of applications.”

At full capacity, the Abu Dhabi campus will accommodate 2,000 students, 800 of whom will be graduates. To date, it has received applications from potential students in 44 countries across six continents.

The university will retain its own faculty and operate under the same standards of academic freedom as in the US.

This is similar to Carnegie Mellon where, despite the fact that the Qatar Foundation pays the entire cost of the budget, faculty members are regarded as full employees of the university, which, Thorpe says, “ensures there is quality control”. 

“Our degrees just say Carnegie Mellon. That is important. It gives the stamp of quality”

Charles Thorpe, dean, Carnegie Mellon University

Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science & Technology (Kaust), which was inaugurated in September 2009, has carved out its own partnership model.

Rather than operating as a Western franchise, it has secured the expertise of leading academics from around the world, who have been appointed as members of the President’s International Advisory Council. It will also collaborate on research with a range of foreign universities, including the US’ Stanford University and Imperial College London.

The number of partnerships and university branch campuses that have been established in the past five years is testament to the Gulf’s will to improve the breadth and depth of its tertiary education.

Such partnerships are mutually beneficial. While Gulf countries fast-track their educational development by tapping into the expertise of universities, the Western institutions gain access to a burgeoning student market in the region. 

However, while the franchise model has proved the most popular in recent years, the closure of the Ras al-Khaimah (RAK) branch of the Virginia-based George Mason University in July – just three years after it opened – is a reminder that replicating such models is a massive undertaking. 

“We have not been able to reach agreement with our RAK partner [the RAK Education Company] on a budget and administrative structure that, in our judgement, assures our ability to provide an education that meets Mason standards,” announced Peter Stearns, provost at George Mason, in July 2009.

Indirectly, the closure is a measure of the scale of the economic and political clout that both the UAE and Qatar have by comparison and the advantages this has given them in attracting students.

Challenges ahead

With the world’s highest gross domestic product per capita – $110,700 in 2008, according to the International Monetary Fund – Qatar’s immense wealth has enabled it to rapidly transform its tertiary education. 

But the controversy surrounding the SAT scores earlier this year shows that the hard work is only just beginning for the region. The Gulf countries may have built state-of-the-art facilities and successfully established campuses in the region, but the real proof of their success will lie in the calibre of the students these institutions now produce and the academic transformation that they help bring about. 

More specifically, the Gulf’s efforts at improving its educational standards will prove futile if education does not directly benefit the local population and help alleviate the prevailing skills shortage.

In the 2007/08 academic year, 50.8 per cent of Education City’s student population of 2,647 consisted of Qatari nationals. This falls significantly short of the Qatar Foundation’s target of 70-75 per cent. Each Qatari university acknowledges that increasing the proportion of nationals studying is a top concern.

So, in addition to ensuring academic integrity, the new Gulf universities face the challenge of increasing the number of local students in order to ensure that they succeed in creating a workforce that will contribute to the domestic economy.

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