Big spender: Qatar aims to take place in global order

UK university in talks as emirate looks to leapfrog established systems. John Gill reports from Doha

March 12, 2009

Qatar has embarked on what it has called "perhaps the most ambitious project ever known to transform a society through education and research".

And the gas- and oil-rich Gulf state has confirmed that it is in "advanced talks" with a UK university poised to join its efforts to build an internationally recognised higher education sector.

If the institution signs on the dotted line, it will set up shop in Qatar's capital, Doha, alongside the branch campuses of six US universities. The unnamed institution would be the first university from outside the US to open a branch in Education City, a 2,500-acre state-of-the-art campus on the outskirts of the capital.

The British are coming

Speaking to Times Higher Education in Doha at the launch of a global education summit, a senior executive from the Qatar Foundation, a private non-profit body established to develop education in the emirate, said it was a risk-free opportunity for a British university to extend its reach into the Gulf.

"A UK university has realised how important the project is and is willing to be a part of it. And even if this one does not work out, we will keep trying," said Ahmad Hasnah, the foundation's associate vice-president of higher education.

Currently, there are six US higher education institutions operating in Education City, including Carnegie Mellon, Cornell and Texas A&M universities. Enrolment is relatively low, with only about 1,200 students enrolled across all six institutions.

One of the attractions of the development is that the Qatar Foundation, which was set up by Sheikha Mozah bint Nasser Al-Missned, the second of the Emir of Qatar's three wives, has built state-of-the-art facilities for foreign universities at its own expense.

Dr Hasnah said: "The buildings are owned and constructed by the Qatar Foundation. So (universities) get a financially risk-free opportunity (to establish a base in the Gulf)."

He was speaking at the announcement of the World Innovation Summit for Education, which is funded by the Qatar Foundation and scheduled for September.

The foundation has lofty ambitions for the summit, which is billed as a "Davos for education", in reference to the annual meetings of the World Economic Forum held in Switzerland every year. The aims tie in with its wider goal of overhauling Qatari education before the natural resources that underpin the emirate's prosperity run out.

At a press conference attended by journalists flown in by the Qatar Foundation from around the world, Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani, vice-president for education, said: "The leadership is using the country's gas revenues to equip its people for the challenges of the 21st century."

Alongside the teaching offered by the Western universities that have pitched their tents in Education City, Qatar is investing heavily in developing a research base "so that, for the first time in several centuries, we will develop new knowledge in this region", Dr Al-Thani said.

"All of this adds up to perhaps the most ambitious project ever known to transform a society through education and research.

"Our intentions are serious ... incremental change is insufficient. We have the will and resources to follow our reforms through and to be a pioneer in the theory and practice of education, not just locally, but regionally and internationally," Dr Al-Thani added.

Underpinning such ambition is Qatar's financial muscle - it has dedicated about 2.8 per cent of its gross domestic product to research, although Dr Al-Thani refused to reveal how much had been spent on Education City.

The summit will also be funded by the foundation, with invited guests from academia, politics and other organisations flown to Doha and put up at national expense.

It aims to tackle the challenges that face educators internationally by focusing on three themes: pluralism, sustainability and innovation.

Further evidence of Qatar's willingness to use its wealth to grease the wheels of the project is its offer of six cash prizes at the summit, worth $20,000 (£14,200) each, to reward initiatives that have solved problems hindering education in other parts of the world.

There will be those who believe that Qatar, which despite its wealth is a small country with low rates of participation in higher education and very little in the way of a research base, may be overreaching with such grand plans.

This seems a pertinent point given some of the Qatar Foundation's rhetoric, such as its intention to "leapfrog" established education systems rather than simply catch up.

An international player

But Dr Hasnah, who was educated in the US before returning to Qatar as a lecturer, believes that the country has what it takes to succeed as the internationalisation of higher education continues. It wants to be a key player in the new world order.

"The only worry, if I have a worry, is that we should take a long breath, because cultural and social change takes a long time," he said.

"You cannot do it in five years; it takes a generation - 30 to 40 years. Civilisations do not go up or down in the blink of an eye - it is a process."

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