Qatar’s ‘Education City’: Can it be a state of the art ‘Cathedral in the Desert’?

Note: GlobalHigherEd will post brief entries by guest contributors from time to time. The first of several that will appear in the next two weeks is by May Wazzan <>, a graduate student at the London School of Economics.


The small but very wealthy state of Qatar has recently announced an integral part of its future vision; reinventing itself as a more economically diversified, less hydrocarbon- dependent, Knowledge Economy (KE). The formulation of the parameters of this vision has been assisted by the World Bank. To this end, the past five years have brought budget constraint free, billion dollar reform plans in areas such as Education, ICT, R&D, and the Labor Market; areas where the notion of the KE has cast prominent policy implications. Against this background, Qatar Foundation, a private-government sponsored institution, has launched the massive ‘Education City’ (EC) in Doha, the capital city. EC is to play a key part in Qatar’s ‘KE vision’, and its objectives of becoming the innovative hub for higher education and Science and Technology development and research in the region.


Figure 1: Qatar faces an oil-dependency ratio higher than of the average GCC ratio in terms of oil revenue to total government revenue and oil exports to total experts, making diversification an urgent matter on the country’s policy agenda

Source: Fasano & Iqbal, 2003

EC houses branches of several American universities (including Carnegie Mellon, Texas A&M, Cornell, Georgetown, and Virginia Commonwealth), strategically selected to teach different disciplines within the free- zone campus, work autonomously and under the same standards as their home campuses. QF offers the universities comprehensive financing, student fees go back to the home campuses but the universities are conditioned to make purchasing contracts locally. In 2006, 2,018 students were enrolled in EC. Up till today, EC has graduated 130 students. The campus is networked by an advanced IT infrastructure which is expected to benefit the entire region, given that it will connect different institutions in the Middle East. Within the campus, a new Science and Technology Park was recently launched to house local and international firms which will engage in science and technology development and research. Theoretically, the idea of EC corresponds to the Triple Helix Model (Etzkowitz & Leydesdorff, 2000), of the public, private, and academic configuration, expected to spur innovation. The universities at EC will serve as the academic infrastructure for the park’s research oriented science firms.


But will EC deliver its promises to the Qatari Economy? EC faces the need to balance the role of the universities as educators and the use of universities as an ‘export industry’. The extent of local multiplier and spillover effects depends on the commitment of the universities and the willingness and incentives of Qatari nationals to engage in knowledge acquisition. The latter still faces shy doubts. Besides, one may be concerned about the strength of the foreign universities’ cultural and social synergies with the country which may create the threat of excessive commercialization of the university, at the expense of its embededness. For example, EC is the first co-education institute in Qatar and the use of advanced English is not so common yet. The Science and Technology Park’s location within the EC is strategic, especially if complimented by a serious commitment to engage local Qatari’s in R&D, something which has never been part of the Qatari mindset before. Without a doubt, EC is a state of the art, ambitious and promising venture. However, it is extremely important to ensure that EC doesn’t end up as solely a playground for foreign establishments. Kevin Morgan (1997) referred to the danger of installing ‘cathedrals in the desert’: facilities which are seriously under-utilized by local firms. Ironically, Qatar is literally a desert land.


Etzkowitz, H., Leydesdorff, L. (2000). The dynamics of innovation: from National Systems and Mode 2 to a Triple Helix of university-industry-government relations. Research Policy, 29, 109-23.

Fasano U., Iqbal Z. (2003). GCC Countries: From Oil Dependence to Diversification. Washington, D.C.: International Monetary Fund.

Knowledge Economy 2020: A Perfect Vision. (2007, June). Qatar Today.

Qatar Population Census. (2003). March 2003 Population Census, State of Qatar.

Morgan K. (1997). The Learning Region: Institutions, Innovation and Regional Renewal. Regional Studies, 31:5, 491 – 503.

May Wazzan

UNSW Asia closure enters realm of Singaporean pop culture

The closure of the University of New South Wales campus in Singapore (UNSW Asia) in May 2007, after only three months of operations and plenty of marketing, has generated a lot of discussion and debate in Singapore, Australia, and most global higher ed circles. The initial phase of deliberations is ably reviewed in the Beerkens’ blog. Since then a variety of discussions have been underway in both Singapore and Sydney regarding compensation for students, faculty, and staff. The shock of the closure has generated more heat than light on the development process to date, in part because UNSW has stated that contract details with the Government of Singapore are ultimately governed by Singapore’s Official Secrets Act. Most media stories (e.g., see this new one on Singapore’s Global Education Hub development strategy in the Christian Science Monitor) make reference to the event, and its potential impacts. There is even a blog (Asia Intelligence) specifically devoted to the closure.

GlobalHigherEd will be developing a full analysis of the closure by the end of 2007. For now though it is worth noting that the closure has entered realm of popular culture with the local Singaporean band King Kong Jane holding UNSW to task (with “(UNSW) Uncle Now Study Where?”) for the situation (thanks to Asia Intelligence for this information update). How many universities have songs written about their crises and disasters?!

Kris Olds

Chronicle of HE discussion: “So You Want to Internationalize Your Campus. Now What?”

Further to the Global Public University forum in Madison WI (USA) on 9 October, which will be webcast live, the Chronicle of Higher Education will be hosting a “live” Q&A session with Professor Philip Altbach from Boston College, USA. As the Chronicle puts it:

Globalization is pressing many colleges to reconsider how they fit into the larger world. For some, that means establishing programs — or even branches — overseas. For others, it means putting greater emphasis on study-abroad programs and internationalizing their curricula. How far should colleges go, and how can they make it happen?

Link here on Thursday 4 October, 12 Noon, US Eastern Standard Time, to see the results.

Both of these events need to be seen in the context of a rush to “internationalize” beyond simply inviting in more foreign students and scholars. An associated news item this week is Michigan State University’s announcement that it is establishing a campus at Dubai International Academic City (DIAC).

Kris Olds

UK & US universities in China, Ethiopia & Singapore

Further to our 6 September posting on debates about the establishment of UK university campuses in China, and the 2 September posting about NYU’s plans for a campus in Abu Dhabi, the Times Higher Education Supplement notes today that a “second wave” of Asian initiatives are being explored by UK universities this autumn.

Amongst the possible initiatives that are briefly flagged in the article:

  • Imperial College London considering the establishment of a campus in Shanghai’s Pudong development zone, where the Lujiazui district acts as China’s Manhattan. This initiative is being “brokered” by David Willetts, Shadow Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Conservative Party.
  • Warwick University discussing the establishment of a “Warwick Institute for Neuroscience in Singapore”.  The deliberations are likely to be informed by Professor Colin Blakemore once he shifts part of his position to Warwick from the UK Medical Research Council.
  • Three to four British universities meeting in October to discuss a joint campus in Singapore.

We will be developing a series of postings in the next few months about overseas campuses, including on those in China and Singapore. See this article on Singapore:

Olds, K. (2007) ‘Global assemblage: Singapore, Western universities, and the construction of a global education hub’, World Development, 35(6): 959-975.

for more analytical context.

Today’s Inside Higher Ed also has an article on US overseas ventures, though in this case it is about the forging of linkages (via degrees abroad) between an American university (Cornell University) and an Ethiopian university (Bahir Dar University). Unlike most UK initiatives in China, this has a stronger “development” objective, as the article notes:

“It’s very much a university strengthening program as well as a degree program,” said Alice Pell, director of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development and a professor of animal science who co-developed the program. “It’s important to understand that it is starting as a Cornell degree and that it will in the long-term morph into a Bahir Dar degree.”

Cornell University is, of course, active in a variety of regions and countries, including via the Qatar Education City development project.

The stretching of the institutional fabric of universities across global space is a complicated endeavor, strongly shaped by both intra-university factors and the nature of the state (and the practice of statecraft) in ‘host’ territories. We’ll also be developing a more analytical posting in October about the nature and impacts of the ‘modes of entry’ universities choose from (by design or accident) when venturing abroad.

Venturing abroad: British universities in China

Lucy Hodges, one of England’s better higher ed journalists, has an interesting article in The Independent newspaper today. The article, titled “Should universities build campuses in the People’s Republic or set up joint degrees with Chinese institutions?”, explores a series of issues related to the past, present and future issues associated with forging relatively deeper linkages between British and Chinese universities. The article was partially inspired by an event (“a private seminar organised by the new higher-education think tank Agora and the Adam Smith Institute”), and interest in the viability of overseas campuses in China, especially those operated by the University of Nottingham in Ningbo, and the University of Liverpool (jointly with Xi’an Jiaotong University). A related article was also published in the Guardian on 4 September 2007.

The story of overseas campuses is a very topical one, especially given the risks associated with what have been, to date, top-down (what I call administrative entrepreneurial) agendas of the vice-chancellors (in this case Nottingham’s Colin Campbell and Liverpool’s James Drummond Bone). The ripples of the recent collapse of UNSW Asia in Singapore are also underlying such news stories.

The article includes comments from skeptics of this approach to the globalization of higher ed. It also reminded me of the 2006 Independent opinion piece that the LSE’s Howard Davies wrote on this topic, from which an extract is pasted in below:

The LSE does not have a remote campus. Our “centre” is snugly housed in a warren of buildings just north of Aldwych. Are we missing a trick? I discussed this question the other day with the (soon-to-be-ex) Harvard president Larry Summers, over in Europe to look after his alumni. In suitably Socratic style he answered with another question. “Why is it that, in the US, health clubs are typically franchised operations, while country clubs are not?” Just like Socrates, Summers also supplied the answer. “Customers go to health clubs for the equipment but to country clubs for the people they hope to meet”. Universities, he concluded, are country clubs, not health clubs. You can sell a Harvard T-shirt, or whoopee cushion, but you can’t franchise its degrees.

Davies ends his piece in a dismissive tone:

But the global higher education marketplace is changing rapidly, so one needs to keep a weather eye open. If I spot a Harvard centre on the Aldwych, or a Harvard golf and country club in Royal Berkshire, then we may need to take another look.

Yet a real peer of LSE, NYU, is expanding abroad, as noted in this blog just a few days ago. It is clear there are a myriad of contrasting views on this issue, most yet to be explored in any depth.

Kris Olds

NYU ventures abroad (again)

Inside Higher Ed posted a relatively detailed story about New York University’s negotiations to establish a campus in Abu Dhabi. I’ve been tracking NYU’s emerging presence in Asia via the Tisch School of the Art‘s campus in Singapore (Tisch Asia). Yet another case of a relatively well-resourced private American university exploring how to stretch its institutional fabric across space. Shades of Qatar Education City, though the scale of this possible campus and offerings are worth noting. The New York Times notes, in an article titled “N.Y.U. Plans a Branch in Abu Dhabi, Officials Say” (31 August, 2007) , that the director will be “Mariët Westermann, a Dutch-born specialist in northern European art, who is currently the director of the university’s Institute of Fine Arts”. This development process generates a series of fascinating questions about the forces underlying this development process, as well as about the institutional practices that are enabling these types of linkages to be forged. Unfortunately few analysts are examining this issue, as ACE’s Madeleine Green and her colleagues note in a recent (2007) report.