Until about fifteen years ago, Qatar was a pretty typical Gulf country as far as higher education was concerned. With a single state university, founded and staffed mostly by Egyptians, it satisfied the needs of the small domestic population. But then the country decided to get serious about higher education.
With help from the RAND corporation, the ruling al-Thani family’s Qatar Foundation established something called Education City, an absolutely unique experiment in cross-border education. Lots of institutions have set up campuses in foreign countries (including in the Gulf), but Education City was an attempt to create a single super-university, one faculty at a time. Need an Engineering school? Bring in Texas A&M. Med School? Call Cornell. And so on.
(College of the North Atlantic – Qatar’s operation is not part of Education City but they were chosen on a similar basis. I’m told that the Qataris wanted a Canadian partner for their college because: a) our reputation for excellence in vocational/professional education; and, b) our accents are easy to understand. And then, among the Canadian schools, the Newfs won the competition. Go figure.)
Since the Emir pays for everything, he got to attach conditions rarely seen in cross-border education, such as insisting that everyone who taught at these schools also had tenure at their home institution, and that knowledge-transfer mechanisms were in place with the existing Qatar University, so that eventually Qatari academics might be able to do all this themselves. Because, at the end of the day, Education City provides an insurance policy against the day the LNG runs out, whereupon Qataris will have to live by their wits by being a knowledge-based economy (KBE).
But what made the whole thing surreal was the amount of money the al-Thanis sunk into the venture. “Are we a KBE yet?” the Prince would ask, after having spent hundreds of millions on the new campus.
“Well, no,” would come the reply. The Education City faculty are good, but KBEs need high-interaction between universities and tech-oriented businesses”.
“Ok,” said the Sheikh. “Let’s go get some of that”. Boom, Cisco and Microsoft get a purpose-built $500M campus next to Education City, exempted of all rules about hiring Qatari employees.
Then: “So, do we have a KBE yet?”
“Well, no. Turns out we can’t get good mid-career faculty to come here because there’s no research career for them. We need granting councils”.
“How much do those cost?”
“Well, in advanced KBEs, governments spend about 1% of GDP on research”.
“Great, here’s the cheque, let me know when we have a KBE”.
For a whole bunch of reasons, this isn’t going to turn out as well as the Emir would like – but it’s still a fascinating approach to creating a higher education system from scratch.