Qatar is vastly wealthy but short on skilled nationals. Four US colleges are setting up on its space-age campus to tackle the issue, says Wendy Wallace
Education City, in Doha, is Qatar's international university campus, and it rises mirage-like out of the desert. The architecture, a mixture of traditional Arab and cutting-edge modern, is softened by marigolds and palm trees.
American universities, including Weill Cornell Medical College and Carnegie Mellon, have already brought their wares here. Future plans for the 10km² site include a mosque, a golf course and a 350-bed teaching hospital. But they do not so far include the establishment of any British institutions despite the best efforts of negotiators from University College London and Bath and City universities, and despite the success of Edinburgh University and others in setting up a postgraduate "British University" in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.
The tiny state of Qatar is attempting to use its vast wealth to create a knowledge economy. The country is rich in natural resources, with trillions of cubic metres of liquefied natural gas, but poor in skilled, qualified nationals. Three quarters of the country's 800,000 population are guest workers, mainly from Asia, topped up by thousands of European and American expatriates. Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Qatar's Emir, wants to create a new generation of educated Qataris able to manage and run their own economy.
Education City's appeal as a university destination has been enhanced by the post-9/11 difficulties that Middle East students face in getting visas to study in the West and by the fear of an anti-Arab bias there even if they succeed. Having a home campus may also make the difference between female students studying or not because conservative tradition tends to discourage this.
Education City aims to establish a campus representing a range of top global educational brands and to put "a Trojan horse of quality into a system that was mediocre", says Robert Baxter, spokesman for the Qatar Foundation. The educational charity, which is headed by Sheikha Mozah, the Emir's wife, founded the campus.
Four US colleges have opened undergraduate schools in Education City. Weill Cornell will offer medical degrees, Carnegie Mellon has brought business and computer science degrees and Texas A&M University is recruiting engineering students. Longest established is Virginia Commonwealth University, which has provided arts and design degrees to women since 1997.
While Georgetown University is reportedly poised to sign a contract to establish a School of International Relations, overtures from UK universities have so far not "pressed the right buttons", according to a British observer.
The venture is lucrative for the colleges that are participating in it.
Fees are the same as at home, up to $40,000 (£21,000) a year, and the Government pays for all Qataris (though the cost of tuition is beyond the reach of most non-native students). Cornell was reportedly paid $750 million to establish itself on the campus, which has been headed since last April by Charles Young, formerly of the University of California, Los Angeles. The cost per student is astronomical, Baxter admits. "But that is not the way it is being regarded. The Government is paying what it takes to build infrastructure."
Numbers are still small. Texas A&M recruited 35 students in its first year of operations and 65 last year. Weill Cornell has the capacity to take more students if it finds applicants of the right calibre. Administrators hope to get a corporate university spirit established through sharing some of the liberal arts courses that are part of American undergraduate studies.
Students are predominantly from Qatar and other Arab countries.
Standards are as high as on home campuses, the institutions'
representatives insist. "Universities don't want their brand undermined by giving out cut-price degrees in the Middle East," Baxter says.
"Certificates will not identify which campus the degree is from."
This is a challenge in a country where, until recently, secondary education has languished and the royal family wants Qatari students to take up at least 50 per cent of places. Academic bridge programmes have been introduced to improve applicants' English, maths and science.
Weill Cornell recently failed six of the thirty students on a two-year preparatory course in medicine. One of the Emir's sons has reportedly applied to Carnegie Mellon. Could he be refused a place? "Of course," a member of the admissions department says. "It is a totally blind procedure."
Charles Bleick, associate dean for academic affairs at all-female VCU, says the role of educators is different in Doha than in Richmond, Virginia.
"Part of the challenge is to not only provide understanding of design but to help them realise that they really are capable, as women, of being successful in the design industry." Qatari women have taken up these educational opportunities with alacrity. Qatari men, who have an automatic share in the nation's wealth and career networking possibilities, are less interested in higher education.
"We should think about how to motivate the boy students to work hard and be responsible, otherwise we will have problems in the future," says Sheikha Abdulla Al-Misnad, reforming president of Qatar's own university and a member of the Qatar Foundation board.
VCU has modified its approach over its years in Qatar. Initially, Bleick says, it was thought that running the overseas campus would be just like running a department. "Instead, what we have found is that you have to re-create on a small scale the whole university - from counsellors to registration procedures and record-keeping."
VCU has gradually adapted to the Gulf context. Students are explicitly forbidden to cheat - getting help from others is not poorly regarded locally - and they are not allowed to bring their maids into the college.
The 40 faculty members have also learnt to adapt to ensure "we're not bringing a total Western aesthetic", Bleick says.
Future plans for the campus include schools of pharmacy, journalism and Islamic studies. A British presence "from the extreme upper echelons of UK universities" is not ruled out, says Tony Jones, British Council representative in Qatar. "I remain optimistic that one day we will have a UK university at Education City."