New branch campus expands choice in Qatar’s education sector

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A new campus in Doha opened by a UK university should boost human resources training and bring Qatar closer towards its vision of creating a knowledge-based economy in the wake of sustained low oil prices.

In May the Scotland-based University of Aberdeen opened a local branch in partnership with Al Faleh Group (AFG), an education services firm. The new campus, called AFG College with University of Aberdeen, will initially offer two undergraduate courses – in business management, and accountancy and finance – to an estimated 120 students in the 2017/18 academic year.

“We believe this partnership will complement the educational pillar of the Qatar National Vision 2030, by allowing Qatari nationals and the wider community greater access to high-quality UK university education,” Brian Buckley, principal of AFG College, told OBG. 

Improving education forms part of the first pillar of Qatar National Vision 2030, the country’s long-term development plan aimed at reducing dependency on hydrocarbons and creating a diversified economy driven by services.

Knowledge cluster

The University of Aberdeen is the second tertiary institution from the UK to open a branch in Qatar, joining a cluster of Western universities that have established campuses there over the past two decades.

These have mostly congregated in Education City, a multibillion-dollar complex on Doha’s western outskirts, designed as a centre for knowledge and innovation and spearheaded by Qatar Foundation (QF), a non-profit organisation focused on education, science and community development.

AFG College with University of Aberdeen, however, differs in that it is located in Al Mamoura, closer to the city centre, and is a private venture undertaken with a local partner, whereas most other foreign university branches operate in partnership with QF.

Last year international media reported that QF’s annual bill to cover operating expenses for the six US universities in Qatar surpassed $400m.

The investment seems to be paying dividends: in the World Economic Forum’s “Global Competitiveness Report 2016/17, Qatar placed 30th out of 138 countries, topping the GCC rankings for higher education. Data released in mid-March by the Ministry of Economy and Commerce showed university enrolment rose by 83.7% in the four years to 2014, to reach 28,100.

Solid growth in enrolment was reiterated by Akel Kahera, dean of Virginia Commonwealth University in Qatar – the first US higher education institute to set up a campus in Qatar.

“Qataris have certainly embraced the challenge of creating a knowledge-based economy, as evidenced by our annual enrolment growth rate of 10-12%,” he told OBG. “Currently, 61% of our students are Qatari nationals and 91% are women, indicating the local thirst for education.”

Budgetary pressures

Qatar’s education sector has not been immune to budget cuts induced by the drop in oil prices, however. Earlier this year it was reported that QF would lay off around 800 staff, as part of cost-cutting measures linked to state efforts to compensate for lower oil revenues.

Foreign universities in Education City will be unaffected by the latest cuts, as they operate independently under pre-negotiated budgets, local media reported in March.

Some institutions have taken QF’s budget tightening as an opportunity to streamline operations, promote efficiencies and partner with the private sector, according to César Malave, dean of Texas A&M University at Qatar.

“We can do more for less,” he told OBG. “Our focus is not just on producing top engineering graduates; we also want to focus on research that addresses national challenges and has an impact in Qatar and beyond.” 

Public universities

Despite a strong presence of foreign institutions, public universities in Qatar still account for 88% of new student enrolments, according to the Ministry of Economy and Commerce.

Qatar University (QU) is responsible for the vast majority of enrolments, with more than 17,000 students currently attending undergraduate and graduate courses and programmes across its nine colleges. 

QU has also attempted to foster a research culture by setting up 14 research centres of excellence that correspond to national needs. Furthermore, an ambitious five-year research roadmap entitled “Advancing Research for Qatar’s Future”, launched by the university in 2014, tackles four priority areas: energy, environment and resource sustainability; social change and identity; population, health and wellness; and ICT. 

Meanwhile, Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), a public research institution affiliated with QF, conferred degrees on 148 graduates this spring, up from 111 a year earlier and almost double the inaugural class in 2014.

Moving forward, public universities could look to generate new academic and research opportunities via international partnerships.

“Qatar offers international partners the advantage of a large concentration of multidisciplinary institutions in Education City,” Ahmad Hasnah, president of HBKU, told OBG. “An interdisciplinary approach to education and research is key, and any partnership must be formed with this in mind.”

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