On 3 May, some 242 students gathered in Doha to mark their graduation from six universities at Education City. This is 48 more than last year and the latest sign of growth at what is the most ambitious tertiary education set-up in the region.

We cannot bring a university and then ask that university to cover financial risks, it’s not logical

Mohammed Saoud, Qatar Foundation

The ceremony was a welcome moment of success for the students and universities alike, but just as the number of graduates is starting to gain momentum, the wider project is undergoing a gradual yet significant evolution.

While Education City continues to expand and tries to attract more internationally prestigious universities, Qatar is increasingly putting its emphasis on post graduate studies and research. It is also becoming more business-like in its negotiations with universities wanting to come to the site. There is even a suggestion that it might try to make a profit from some courses.

Research focus for Education City

“The most important component of everything we do is the research component and the generation of research-based knowledge is going to be critical in our success,” says Mohammed Saoud, president of Qatar Foundation for Education, Science & Community Development, which runs Education City.

“Whatever we are doing now in new partnerships we are trying to do better. My first agreement with Cornell [which opened a branch of Weill Cornell Medical College in 2001] was probably not as good as the one we had recently with Northwestern [in 2008].

“The difference will be trying to get more accountability for everything you invest. Our undergraduate programmes are not-for-profit, but we are hoping to break-even with our graduate programmes. This should happen as soon as possible. Business schools are known to be the money-makers of any university.”

So far there are eight foreign universities on the site to the west of Doha, each offering a small range of courses. The most recent recruit is University College London, which will start a postgraduate programme of archaeology, conservation and museum studies from next year. Saoud is also looking to sign up other universities to offer programmes in law and health management.

It appears to be getting easier for Qatar Foundation to attract international universities to the country. This is partly because of the number of institutions already there, but the financial muscle that Doha can supply is still the most critical element and Saoud acknowledges that it still covers all the universities’ costs.

“We cannot bring a university and then ask that university to cover financial risks, it’s not logical,” he says. “You have to cover whatever it takes to offer these programmes. There is always something you have to pay to maintain quality. Our project is about investment in the future.”

It is not clear how the more business-like approach of Qatar Foundation is being reflected in the contracts it signs with universities, but those agreed in the early days are likely to have included significant lump sum payments. The contract signed with Weill Cornell is estimated to be worth $750m over 10 years. Virginia Commonwealth has an annual budget of $20m, while Texas A&M’s is $55m.

“To be fair to Qatar, they had to do two extremely difficult things,” says Leonard Hausman, chairman of American Higher Education International. “The first was they had to break through. The second thing was they wanted to break through in the field of medical education. That’s very difficult. They got a top 10 US medical school, so it would be totally reasonable that they would have to pay that kind of money.”

Ensuring education standards

Once universities have been enticed to Qatar, however, there are plenty of other difficulties to be faced, both in terms of students and academics. Saoud admits that there were problems in the quantity and quality of students at first, but he says that these issues have now been solved.

“In the beginning it was natural to find that we were not filling the capacity of each class,” he says.

The easy way has been to globalise the student body, which now consists of some 80 nationalities, with non-Qataris forming the majority of those studying at Education City.

Qatari school leavers rank well below the global average for reading, mathematics and science skills, according to the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment.

This issue is being tackled through the Academic Bridge programme – an extra period of education to prepare students coming from local high schools for the demands of a Western university education. Saoud says that about 40 per cent of students currently go through the Academic Bridge programme. Given that Qatari students only make up 45 per cent of the total student body, this highlights the scale of the problem.

The need to give extra teaching to high school students before they can enter third level education is not unique to Qatar. At the heart of the problem is the rote learning which characterises secondary level education in the Gulf and leaves students ill-prepared for the more rigorous intellectual climate at international universities.

Attracting academics to Qatar

Attracting and retaining high quality academics has also been a major challenge for Qatar Foundation, with many of the early deans coming for a brief two-year posting before retirement. Once again this issue is not unique to Qatar, but money has provided a solution here too.

“The problem that one hears when one goes to the campuses [in the Gulf] is sustaining the flow of faculty to the branches that exist abroad,” says Hausman.

In Qatar’s case, this runs into many hundreds of millions of dollars a year. According to Saoud, the annual budget for the whole of the Qatar Foundation “is somewhat more than $1bn, but Education City is the main part”. That budget also allows Qatar to offer the vast majority of students financial aid to attend the various universities.

“Admission is need-blind,” says Saoud. “A student cannot be denied admission because he or she cannot pay and we have some generous scholarship and financial aid programmes. At the moment not less than 70 per cent of students [receive financial aid].”

Although Qatar can afford such costs, Saoud says the longer term vision is for the country’s education and research facilities to use a steadily growing endowment from the government to become self-sufficient. “Everything we do in education, health and research is based on an endowment,” he says. “By 2025, the education and health endowment will be able to cover the cost of these two sectors in Qatar.”

Achieving that will be one way to measure the success of the Education City project, alongside enrolment numbers in the undergraduate programmes. However, some longer term aims are more important for Qatar, including what happens to the students after they leave campus.

Education City, along with Qatar Science & Technology Park which lies beside it, is meant to be a catalyst for diversifying the country’s entire economy and that means the contribution of graduates will be vital, as long as they can be persuaded to stay in Qatar.

Qatar’s economic diversification

“We try to ensure the talent we are going to invest in is going to stay with us and this can never happen unless you develop a set of mechanisms that will make Qatar their best option when they graduate,” says Saoud. “Otherwise we will be preparing highly talented graduates to go abroad. The top students are offered Qatari citizenship. In the financial aid programmes, if a student can commit to work for Qatar Foundation after he or she graduates, then the financial aid can be given.”

The ultimate aim is to transform the economy from being based on energy to being based on knowledge.

Saoud expects the international universities to remain there for another 20 years, but beyond that the aim is to have a Qatari education system, which can rival the best international schools.

There is still a long way to go before the education system can produce the quantity and quality of local students that the country and Education City require. That much is clear from the make-up of the 242 students who graduated this May, most of whom came from abroad to study in Doha.