Qatar has enormous oil and gas reserves, but the little state is trying to kick the petroleum habit and become a high-tech society. It wants a sustainable economy for when the oil runs out – and a more cultured society in the meantime.
The Qatar Foundation is the institution that is leading this drive: I am in the little Gulf state this week for WISE, their annual summit on education, where I was a speaker on the finance of education. The whole thing is rather spectacular.
When they say they are going to do something, they go big – sometimes to a rather baffling degree. One of my favourite examples of this is their super-duper equine health centre, which trains horse-handlers and apparently features a sauna for the horses.
More signficantly, Qatar wants a biomedical research industry. So the Qatar Foundation endowed the new Sidra medical centre with $7.9bn in 2007. A lot went into its massive new buildings, but that pot was more than the endowments of all but 6 universities in the world.
The conference itself takes place in a centre across the road from Education City. This is one – unique – university (the Hamad bin Khalifa University). It is a confederal university, which contains nine branch campuses run by western institutions issuing their own degrees alongside some of its own homegrown departments.
So alongside HBK’s own departments issuing HBK degrees, University College London runs an archaeology course, Northwestern offers journalism, Texas A&M runs an engineering programme and so on. Each branch campus has its own – incredibly grand – mini-campus, each next to one another.
The whole effect is rather hard to describe: physically, the closest thing I can compare it to is an out-of-town business or retail park, with the institutions lined up next to one another. But that misses out on the chicness and grandeur of the buildings themselves.
This will never be a big university: David Prior, the provost, says it does not intend to grow beyond 7,000 to 8,000 students. But that is where Qatar’s small population comes in. A university of that stature is big in a country of this size.
The UN figures for the country imply there are around 22,000 people in each birth cohort – though that figure includes non-Qataris. Including all students, if half of the students are Qatari-born, HBK could take in 5 per cent of the country.
Qatar University, its older homegrown sibling, could take in about 10 per cent. This country is setting up what is surely the most expensive higher education system in the world per capita. But with its cash-to-population ratio, it can.
This all makes Qatar rather different from the other transnational education hubs with lots of so-called “branch campuses”. Some places, such as Singapore, are becoming education export hubs where you can buy western education in the far east. Qatar is doing a bit of that, but it is really importing education for itself.
Making this stick will be tough: the educated are footloose. While Doha is grand and growing – towers are rising across the city – it is not exactly bustling. To be fair, the government is working on improving the country’s cultural life. Its investment in sport and entertainment are important to make the education spending pay off.
However, Qatar’s most immediate problem looks much more basic. The Qatari school system is weak: it took the OECD PISA tests – a system for benchmarking school systems in 2009, and came in at 372 points.
Given its ambitions, that is a poor performance: the average for the OECD is 500, with a standard deviation of 100 points. This implies that the average Qatari is worse educated than 80 per cent of children in the OECD member states.
Other Arab states did much better: Tunisia (404 points), Jordan (405), the UAE (431) all beat it quite handily. This is a serious problem: education is a long game – even if you were to sort out primary education immediately, you would need to wait well a decade for the effect to feed through.
Right now, Qatar’s schools are surely the most significant impediment to its plans to reinvent itself as a knowledge economy.