Universities Bridge the Gulf between Middle East and West

By Hoare, Stephen | The Independent (London, England), November 17, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Universities Bridge the Gulf between Middle East and West

Hoare, Stephen, The Independent (London, England)

Foreign universities are expanding into Arab countries, on the condition that standards stay high

Winning its bid to host the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Doha, the Gulf emirate of Qatar showed the rising power of the Middle East. Its landmark football stadium will cool summer temperatures of around 40 degrees with solar panel-powered air-conditioning as the international teams play to crowded stands.

However, an even more amazing transformation has already taken place on the arid outskirts of Doha, where branch campuses of international universities have clustered to create Education City, a new learning hub for the region.

Commissioning top world architects and offering building grants, tax incentives and guaranteed student numbers, the state-owned Qatar Foundation began building Grand Designs university campuses with a vision to transform Qatar's education system and build a knowledge economy.

Education City hosts US universities Northwestern, Carnegie Mellon, Weill Cornell Medical College, Georgetown University, Virginia Commonwealth University and Texas A&M, which teach accredited degrees to the same syllabus and standards as in the US using expatriate or visiting faculty. Unlike higher education in many Islamic countries which tends to segregate the sexes, mixed classes are the norm.

Last year, the Qatar Foundation linked these branch campuses to create an overarching institution, the Hamad Bin Khalifa University, run along the lines of an Oxbridge college system. Universities have a semi-autonomous status but will employ increasing numbers of Qatari faculty and the integration of academic provision is ongoing.

"At Education City we are creating an umbrella organisation with four multi-disciplinary schools, each run by a dean," says Dr Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani, the university's president and vice president of the Qatar Foundation. "We are also creating a faculty of Islamic studies offering Islamic finance, architecture, art and foreign policy, taught in Arabic and English."

Postgraduate provision is increasing as undergraduate programmes mature. The limited range of degrees is a reflection of the region's economic priorities: business, finance, medicine and petro-chemical engineering. Weill Cornell, for example, offers a four-year programme leading to a doctor of medicine degree, while Texas A&M, sponsored by Qatar Petroleum and the Qatar Petrochemical Company (QAPCO), specialises in chemical engineering and started recruiting postgraduates this year.

The arts are represented by Virginia Commonwealth University's master's in fine art and design, while University College London, which arrived in Doha last year, offers postgraduate studies in archaeology, museum studies and conservation. From next year, UCL's new master's programmes, in museums and conservation practice and in Arab and Islamic archaeology, will build on strong links with Qatar's Museum of Islamic Art. By 2015, the university aims to have 150 postgraduates, contributing to the Qatar Foundation's aim of making Doha a centre for Islamic culture.

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