Unusually for a Muslim country, Qatar has opened its door to Western-style institutions. In broadcasting, this has meant Al Jazeera. In higher education, it has meant the creation of Education City, which houses Hamad bin Khalifa University, or HBKU, a new all-graduate institution.
“I think HBKU is a very exciting next step in higher education in Qatar,” says Dr David Prior, the university’s vice-president and provost. “We are being given the opportunity to create something that is going to raise Qatar and the region.”
Five years ago journalists from around the world were flown to Qatar for the graduation ceremony of the first group of young people to qualify from Education City.
It was a glittering affair and enabled this oil and gas rich state to show off its ambitious experiment – to create an education hub by inviting in the best American universities to run undergraduate courses in Qatar.
The event garnered headlines and interest around the world. The aim was to create an elite educational facility along Ivy League lines and make Qatar the education centre for the Middle East, if not for the Asian sub-continent. This is still the aim, says Prior.
What has happened in the past five years?
The creation of Hamad bin Khalifa University has been the most important development.
Drawing on the expertise of the American and now some European universities, Qatar has established its own graduate school that Prior hopes will be a “powerful education entity”.
Qatar University, the subject of a University World News article on 15 November, was not envisaged as part of the scheme. Most Qatari students do not have the qualifications to enter an Ivy League university, a fact that has sparked some resentment in the Gulf state.
In the past year Twitter and some Arab language papers have run comments about the unfairness of having two universities, one an elite institution – Hamad bin Khalifa University – and the other Qatar University, or QU, which takes 60% of Qatari school leavers.
“QU students feel themselves to be outcasts”, said one female Tweeter. “There are efforts to create a wedge in society and have two social classes, one that has access to elite private educational institutions while the other, the people at large, have access only to government educational institutions.” She was referring, it is thought, to Qatar University.
There has been concern about the foreign universities in Qatar. They have branch campuses sitting alongside HBKU and are called partners. Six are from the US and there is one each from the United Kingdom and France.
They are Northwestern, Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon, Weill Cornell Medical School, Texas A&M and Virginia Commonwealth from America; University College London, or UCL, from the UK; and HEC from France.
In his book, The Arab Spring and the Gulf States, former minister of economy and commerce Mohamed A J Al Thani said he feared that excessive foreign education had “entered their culture and their lives”.
This was taken as a direct criticism of Sheikha Mozah, the glamorous second wife of the former emir, who has invested billions through the Qatar Foundation to attract universities to Doha, Qatar’s capital.
Giving an Arab name to the new graduate school – naming it after her husband – must have helped to spike the discontent but has not have completely overcome it.
The creation of further branch campuses like the eight already in Qatar is thought unlikely, suggesting that Qatar’s rulers have responded to the discontent about inviting in so many Western institutions. The intention in future is to have an institution that is seen, above all, as Qatari.
Prior says he knows nothing of the discontent. “The thing we are very focused on is to increase Qatari participation in HBKU,” he says. “We clearly need to serve the Qatari population.”
HBKU is creating programmes with its eight Western partners that will benefit Qatar. One of them is an executive masters degree in energy and resources that is being taught by faculty from Georgetown, Texas A&M and HEC.
Another is a masters in information and library studies which is being run at the moment by University College London with the intention that in future it will become a joint programme between UCL and HBKU. Similarly, a diploma in academic research and methods run by UCL is expected to become an HBKU degree one day.
Even without the postgraduate courses there are 2,300 students studying at the university of whom 44% are Qatari. Women are thought to be in the great majority.
Apart from the lack of men, one of the big issues for faculty and students is academic freedom. As an absolute monarchy, it is against the law to criticise the emir and recently the poet Mohammed Rashid al-Ajami was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for “insulting” the former emir and “inciting overthrow of the government”, according to reports.
Some of the undergraduate journalism students studying on the prestigious Northwestern programme have run into trouble while reporting on events in Doha. One of them was arrested in 2012 for taking photographs at a shopping mall after a fire that killed 19 people. He was beaten up by policemen and jailed for 10 days.
In September this year two Northwestern journalism students were arrested for filming an explosion at a local petrol station without permission. One of them was the same intrepid student caught for taking pictures at the shopping mall. This time they were released after a few hours.
The incidents show how difficult it is to operate in a country that does not have a free press. Al Jazeera, for example, is free to report events around the world but is curiously reticent when it comes to Qatar itself.
Insiders say that changes are taking place and that the culture is loosening up. Prior says that faculty are free to communicate facts and ideas relevant to the courses being taught. “We must be respectful of the laws and traditions of the country,” he adds.
The question is whether HBKU can become successful on its own terms, as an elite institution that can help move the hereditary emirate away from its almost total dependence on gas and oil and towards a knowledge economy.
The signs are hopeful.
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