Qatar’s Hamad Bin Khalifa University so far has been a collection of Western branch campuses spread over a huge, architecturally audacious site in the capital Doha rather than a unified institution.
The gas-rich Gulf state now wants to take the university a step closer to integration by having its constituent institutions - six from the US and one each from the UK and France - help to design and teach new postgraduate programmes.
The initiative, if it works, would be a notable success for Qatar as it tries to establish a globally renowned university of its own by importing Western expertise.
Such an institution, it is hoped, would help move the hereditary emirate away from its almost total dependence on gas and towards a knowledge economy.
But questions remain over whether the branch campuses of such prominent global institutions will agree to the development, and the Qatari university has been somewhat coy about the demographics of its student body.
There also remains the perennial question of academic freedom in an autocratic monarchy, highlighted recently by the life sentence given to the poet Muhammad Ibn al-Dheeb al-Ajami, who, it was claimed, had criticised Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.
David Prior, the university’s new executive vice-president and provost, spoke to Times Higher Education in Doha during the World Innovation Summit for Education in November.
In 2003, he led the establishment of Texas A&M University’s outpost in what was then known as Education City (it was renamed in honour of Qatar’s emir in May 2011) and took up his present role last summer.
The Western branch campuses have “an opportunity…to build graduate programmes all the way to PhD in some areas and…to step beyond what they are doing now and do things they couldn’t do on their own”, he says.
The proposed graduate schools would be interdisciplinary in scope and cover four areas: public health; humanities and social science; business, law and public policy; and science, engineering and technology.
According to Prior, the push to create the joint programmes is coming from the university’s backers, the Qatar Foundation.
The foundation - probably best known for paying a reported €30 million (£25.8 million) a year to sponsor FC Barcelona - is a state-backed not- for-profit organisation whose stated aim is to wean Qatar off its reliance on fossil fuels and turn it into a knowledge economy.
The university must contribute to “the evolution of Qatar’s society and economy through the development of graduate programmes”, Prior says.
The programmes, he explains, will help achieve the goals of Qatar National Vision 2030, a national planning document that envisages a “modern world- class educational system” in the Gulf state that encourages “analytical and critical thinking” while nonetheless promoting “social cohesion and respect for Qatari…values and heritage”.
Asked whether the branch campuses have agreed to the courses, Prior says they have, before clarifying that the university is “exploring” its options.
THE contacted the branches to gauge their interest in the plans. Of the four that responded, some were more enthusiastic than others.
Thilo Rehren, director of UCL in Qatar, says his institution is “clearly in favour of such developments”, adding that “momentum [is] developing about the plans”.
A spokeswoman for Virginia Commonwealth University says it is “contributing ideas” to “preliminary conversations” about the graduate schools.
Georgetown University says that a “number of possibilities are being explored”, including collaboration on undergraduate programmes, and that the Qatari plans are “beginning to take concrete shape”.
Carnegie Mellon University would say only that “there have been no formal agreements…regarding new programmes or degrees”.
Even without the postgraduate courses, there are about 2,300 students already studying at the university, Prior enthuses.
“There was a target for 2015 [of] around 2,300, so we’re already there,” he says.
The aim for 2020 is about 4,500 students, and “we believe we’ll probably exceed that”, Prior adds.
Is this not a rather modest target, particularly as only 44 per cent of the current student body is Qatari?
“We’re talking about a relatively compact institution of very high quality that is a research university,” Prior counters.
There are “no formal targets that I know of” regarding the proportion of domestic students, he adds, but “there’s an understanding that we must serve the people of Qatar”.
Prior would not be not drawn on whether his institution might, for example, be comparable to Ivy League institutions by 2030, saying that he is “less concerned about rankings and those kinds of things”.
Despite a promise from Prior that the university would later divulge how many of its students are female, the university has not revealed the data despite THE’s repeated requests, nor has it disclosed how many students have entered each year.
However, the branch campuses that provided statistics suggest a steady rise in student numbers.
The Georgetown branch, for example, accepted 83 first-year students in 2012-13, up from the 43 it accepted in 2009-10, although its total undergraduate body will peak “within the next two years” at slightly over 300 students.
UCL-Q has recruited 28 students, nine of whom are Qatari, on to its taught postgraduate programmes in 2012-13, its first year of operations - four more than the outpost’s target.
‘Freedom in eye of beholder’
Prior likens the university to a “start-up” without “history and baggage”. The institution may be young, but in the eyes of critics it does have the “baggage” of being backed by the Qatari state, which in November handed a life sentence to the poet al-Ajami for “insulting” the emir and “inciting the overthrow of the government”, according to reports.
Asked whether the Qatari government is ever discussed or criticised as part of the university courses, Prior says he is not sure.
“I’m not in the classroom. I don’t have that perspective,” he says.
The university is “subject to the laws of the land, and the laws here are somewhat different in some areas”, he adds.
The Qatari Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but journalists and academics often practice self-censorship and slander is an imprisonable offence, according to the Washington-based non-governmental organisation Freedom House.
Pressed on whether he would be happy for the university to teach anything that might displease the House of Thani, Qatar’s royal family, Prior becomes visibly uncomfortable.
“I’m not sure I know what you mean…I’m a geologist; I don’t do a lot of displeasing people - I hope I find some oil,” he jokes.
“One has to be sensitive to the political and social environment in which one lives,” he continues. “Academic freedom is in the eye of the beholder. There are different political contexts in which universities have to work.”
When THE reported on the opening of UCL-Q in 2011, Georgetown volunteered as proof of its outpost’s academic independence a paper written there in 2009.
“Royal Factionalism and Political Liberalization in Qatar”, authored by Mehran Kamrava, director of the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar’s Center for International and Regional Studies, rejects the idea that the emirate is progressing towards democracy and concludes that the state “remains fundamentally autocratic”.
As the interview ends, Prior is eager to conclude with praise for the university’s president (and member of the House of Thani), Abdulla bin Ali al-Thani, who, he says, has set a “tone of excellence, hope and opportunity” for the country’s flagship institution.