Just minutes from the Persian Gulf's translucent blue waters, through the flat, white desert and past the headquarters of the Al Jazeera news network, a large sign in both Arabic and English reads: "Welcome to Education City."
Inside the 2,500-acre, well-guarded compound, students from across the Arab world are enrolled in one of five premier U.S. universities that have arrived in the Middle Eastern country of Qatar in recent years to deliver American-style education and degrees. The institutions include Carnegie Mellon University, the Georgetown School of Foreign Service, Texas A&M University, Virginia Commonwealth University School for the Arts and Weill Cornell Medical Center, which offers the first and only American medical degree outside of the United States.
Qatar's Education City, perhaps the world's most diverse campus, is almost entirely unknown in the United States, but represents the next step in the globalization of en higher education--international franchising. Aided by technology such as online libraries, distance learning and streaming video, U.S. universities offer--and charge tuition for--a combination of live and digital education that is supposedly indistinguishable in quality from that received on the home campuses.
The exportation of U.S. education could bring tremendous educational opportunities and financial gain for universities. But no one is precisely sure how this bold experiment will turn out.
"No one has ever done this before," says Dr. James Reardon-Anderson, dean of Georgetown School of Foreign Service in Qatar. "This is not 'Georgetown Lite.' If we screw up, people will be walking around with a Georgetown degree who don't deserve it."
Education City is the brainchild of the ambitious and popular Qatari royal family, the Al-Thanis, who run this enormously wealthy country of 800,000 people. Qatar, a neighbor of Saudi Arabia, rests on a rich bed of oil and natural gas, and the Qatari royal family has spent billions building Education City, traveling the globe courting top universities and companies.
As part of the deal with American universities, the Qatari royal family is footing the entire bill, from constructing architecturally stunning lecture halls to paying professors' travel, housing and salaries. They have also agreed to take a "hands-off" approach in regards to content and course material. This intellectual openness, while unusual in the Arab world, is part of Qatar's broader plan to "reclaim the luster of Arab education after centuries in the dark ages," say planners.
The vast experiment is in its embryonic stages. The Al-Thanis are currently in talks with a U.S. postgraduate business school and a U.S. journalism school. An $8 billion teaching hospital, expected to be the region's best, is also under construction, to be opened in 2010. There are currently more than 450 students enrolled, and the population will grow to between 7,000 and 10,000.
"The whole world is going global, so why should higher education be any different?" asks Maggie Robbins, executive assistant at the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, which has seen its international accreditation grow rapidly. Most of the American professors and administrators involved in Education City admit to being taken aback when first approached about going to Qatar, which is about the size of Connecticut.
"I said, 'I don't know how to play the guitar,'" recalls Peter Martin, assistant professor of graphic design of VCU, when he was first approached about the opportunity by his department dean. "And he said, 'No, Qatar.' I didn't know anything about Qatar. But my wife thought it would be an adventure, and we agreed to come here one year. That was in 1999."
By September 2006, 170 professors will be in all five campuses, a faculty-student ratio of about 1:10. Slightly more than half of the professors are from the United States. …