Education: An Early Victim of the Qatar Crisis?

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Cornell Qatar 620x350by Jesse Schatz for LobeLog

University faculty and students in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have been reeling at the consequences of the ongoing Qatar crisis, fearing the implications of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Bahrain, and Egypt’s blockade on Doha for their careers and academic pursuits. Within the first days of the blockade Saudi Arabia and Bahrain recalled 12 and 11 nationals, respectively, who held faculty positions at Qatar’s universities. Officials in Doha remain adamant, however, that they will not force any faculty to leave, a decision that has allowed 226 Egyptian university faculty and staff to remain in the emirate. Given that universities in Qatar are on summer break, students have yet to be largely affected. But the blockading countries have recalled students that elected to stay in Doha for the summer term.

Caught up in this geopolitical crisis, a host of educational institutions, including American university branch campuses, are increasingly concerned about the possible effects of the blockade. Although largely comprised of American, British and French citizens, whom the ban does not directly affect, university faculty are concerned about their future in Qatar. Qatari officials insist that American universities will be unaffected, but the deployment of analysts from Global Rescue (an international crisis management firm) has only raised the anxiety levels.

Restricting Saudi, Bahraini, and Emirati students from attending Qatari Universities, and Qatari students from academic institutions in the three Persian Gulf countries blockading Qatar, will further isolate Qatar from the rest of the region and upset the cosmopolitan exchange of knowledge and ideas that sustains these international universities in Doha, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai. Additionally, from Qatar’s vantagepoint, this restriction of knowledge and the sequestering of talent away from Doha threatens the technological advancement Qatar needs to fully transition to a “knowledge economy,” a task in which research-universities play an integral part.

The National Human Rights Committee (NHRC) of Qatar has appealed to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to intervene. It has submitted to the UN body a report that accuses the three GCC states taking action Doha of committing injustices against Qatari students and “serious violations of a range of civil, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to education.”

The report alleges 85, 29, and 25 violations against Qatari students in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain, respectively, since the ongoing crisis erupted last month. The NHRC chairman, who filed this report with UNESCO, told al-Jazeera that these violations of students’ rights to an education included “preventing them from taking final exams, withholding certificates of graduation, closing their educational accounts and arbitrarily terminating their registration without giving reasons.” Accusing a fellow GCC member of failure to protect human rights is uncharted territory for the Persian Gulf’s bloc of Arab monarchies, which typically take a collective approach to defending the others from such accusations.

Compatible with the missions of GCC states to diversify their economies away from their hydrocarbon sectors, each member has taken part, albeit to varying degrees, in developing their higher educational systems. The thinking is that the push to strengthen universities in the GCC will simultaneously train these six countries’ citizens in skills that can produce profitable technological advancements for their economies and reduce reliance on foreign workers. Qatar’s Education City serves as a model for the other five GCC members in terms of attracting renowned academics and students from all over the West, the Arab world, and other regions.

Although protecting their citizens’ rights to obtain an education would help the GCC states achieve their economic diversification goals, the Qatar crisis has clearly prompted the Saudi and UAE governments to violate this right of their citizens for political purposes. If officials in Abu Dhabi, Manama, and Riyadh continue such restrictions on GCC nationals’ right to an education throughout the duration of what could easily be a prolonged stalemate, these countries will bear costs. Over time, such costs will be measured in what could have been a more educated citizenry with the skills that are required for making the GCC’s economies knowledge-based and free of their current addictions to oil and gas. Putting politics aside and defending the right of all citizens of each GCC country to obtain an education would help decrease the negative long-term social and economic fallout from the Qatar crisis.

Jesse Schatz is a contributor to Gulf State Analytics (@GulfStateAnalyt), a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy. Photo: Cornell University campus in Doha (Wikimedia Commons).

Qatar’s Isolation Disrupts Regional Research

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qatar main smallBy Sedeer El-Showk for Nature Middle East 

The recent decision by Arab states to cut diplomatic ties with Qatar has cast a chill on growing research collaborations in a region trying to shift away from a dependency on oil to knowledge-based economies. The dispute has left researchers uncertain about the future, and the severity of the measures has made many hesitant to comment.

On June 5, Saudi Arabia accused Qatar of funding terrorist organisations and abruptly severed ties with its neighbour, cutting diplomatic relations and imposing a trade and travel ban, as well as blocking Qatari access to Saudi ports and airspace. Regional allies Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE quickly followed, leaving the small nation isolated.

While pundits debate the geopolitical motives and consequences, this decision has already affected many aspects of life in Qatar and the region, including scientific research.

Like several of its neighbours, Qatar has in recent years began ramping up its science spending. In 2014, the nation launched the Qatar Genome Project, which published a reference genome for Middle Eastern populations last year, a resource which is bearing fruit in advances in personalized medicine.

Mariam Al-Maadeed, vice president for research and graduate studies at Qatar University, calls the decision to cut ties “unfortunate”, but like several other leaders in the field, she’s cautiously hopeful. “We have international collaborations and well-established, strong, strategic partnerships with long-term plans that will foster our collaboration with institutions in other regions.”

While the US, China, and Europe make up the bulk of Qatar’s collaborations, Egypt and Saudi Arabia rank as Qatar’s third and seventh largest research partners, respectively. The economic sanctions and travel ban endanger the future of these collaborations, undermining research that could benefit the entire region. Likewise, bilateral collaboration and funding agreements that were under discussion between institutions in Qatar and these neighbouring countries have now been put on hold.

Scientists, who spoke to Nature Middle East on condition of anonymity, are concerned about the long-term effects of Qatar’s isolation. “Researchers in the region have been working to build a research establishment based on collaboration, and this political decision will make it more difficult,” admits a Qatar-based scientist. “We hope the situation will be resolved soon in order to avoid permanent damage to what has been built.”

Another researcher adds that the decision is expected to prevent travel within the region for conferences or training, and stop labs in the region from sharing samples. Qatari institutes which rely on vendors in Dubai or Saudi Arabia will now have to order supplies and technical support directly from the US, adding cost and delays.

“The severe measures ... could have a significant and long-lasting negative impact on the development of higher education and research in the GCC and the entire region,” says Hilal Lashuel, a professor at the Brain Mind Institute at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland, and former executive director of the Qatar Biomedical Research Institute.

“They reinforce the image of a region where the culture and key ingredients for achieving scientific excellence and innovation do not exist. By sending a signal that the region is unstable and unpredictable, they will also discourage talented students, scientists, and professionals from pursuing careers or collaborations in the region.”

In the long term, researchers fear, the decision to isolate Qatar might end up curtailing advancement and development. “Scientists and academics are the vanguard of change and progress, and undermining them limits their ability to make a better future for everyone,” says the unnamed Qatar-based scientist. “This isn’t just about today; it’s really about implications for the future, for the next generation.”

Qatar Foundation admits it is considering job cuts

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The Qatar Foundation says it is looking at possible job cuts, the latest Gulf entity to acknowledge being hurt by low global energy prices.

The foundation says in a statement Sunday it is "examining our existing operational costs," when asked if it was cutting jobs. It declined to elaborate.

News of the cuts was first reported by the website Doha News, which suggested the layoffs could affect hundreds of workers.

The Qatar Foundation, once widely known for its placement on the jerseys of the Spanish football club Barcelona, is chaired by Sheikha Moza bint Nasser al-Missned, the most high-profile wife of former ruler Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.

Qatar, which will host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, is a major natural gas producer that also pumps crude oil.

Aberdeen University opens its first campus in Qatar

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qatar1Aberdeen University has opened a campus in Qatar.  The multi-million pound facility in Doha - a partnership between the university and the Al-Faleh Group for Educational and Academic Services (AFG) - will initially offer business degrees to Qatari nationals and the country's expatriate community, university bosses said.

The university will begin by offering two undergraduate courses at the campus, in business management and accountancy and finance, which are expected to attract around 120 students in the 2017-18 academic year.

Over the next four years, the campus is expected to expand to include additional undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, including in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.

Aberdeen University said the move makes it the first UK university to have a dedicated campus in the Gulf state offering mainstream degrees.

University principal professor Sir Ian Diamond said: "The opening of the university's campus in Qatar is a significant milestone in our history, and I am proud to be working alongside our partners AFG to increase educational opportunities for Qatari citizens.

"We are one of only a select number of overseas universities to be chosen to provide higher education in Qatar, which is testament to the strength of our business programmes and our track record of excellence in teaching and research.

"In the years to come we hope to expand the range of opportunities available for students, so that as many people as possible can benefit from the world-class educational experience for which the university is renowned."

Higher Education in Qatar ‘Needs to be More Inclusive’

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A general view shows the 011Higher education in Qatar needs to become more inclusive so that the country is able to draw on the talents of a wider range of people, from all sectors of society – and especially groups who have not traditionally taken part in higher education, urged HE Dr Ibrahim al-Ibrahim, economic adviser at Emiri Diwan and member of Qatar University (QU)’s Board of Regents.

He was delivering a keynote address on “Excellence in Higher Education and its role in Qatar National Vision 2030” yesterday at the opening session of the “IREG Forum 2017: “Excellence as the University Driving Force”, aimed to provide a platform to discuss the various aspects of academic excellence, and to learn about new initiatives in academic rankings.

Addressing the two-day forum, a first for the region and organised by QU in collaboration with IREG Observatory on Academic Ranking and Excellence, Dr al-Ibrahim stated that the Qatari education sector cannot be complacent in the face of considerable challenges, such as the economic crisis, changing world demographics, the emergence of new competitors, new technologies and modes of working.

“Qatar needs to become more outward-looking and more innovative. For Qatar to reach its potential as a society, it must enlarge its pool of talents. And for Qatar University to provide quality, relevant higher education to more students from diverse backgrounds, it has designed mechanisms to support the students and bridge the gap between the level of education of incoming students and its own levels that are, and have to remain of international standards.

“On the other side of the spectrum, the university provides opportunities for its current students to engage in more advanced courses and in new forms of teaching and learning such as Massive Open Online Courses that are opening up new opportunities in education, and giving the university a chance to reshape the education systems.”

Dr al-Ibrahim suggested that QU needs to equip students with the entrepreneurial and work-relevant skills they need. The 14 research centres the university created are essential in that endeavour. They propose a new approach to innovation based on structured partnerships between universities, research centres and businesses. Such centres help the country use the potential of higher education to re-energise its society and to organise a genuine mindset change towards a more entrepreneurial culture.

“The Qatar National Research Fund, established in 2006, is also another source of strength at the national level, helping in that direction. QU has been making full use of this fund in the last five years, becoming one of the fastest growing institutions for research in the region. Its researchers’ publications have increased by approximately 246% in this period.

Dr al-Ibrahim observed that QU has been able to “flourish” on rankings, despite the flaws in the rankings methodology and to score well worldwide by top ranking institutes (QS and THE), benefiting from its balanced performance in research output and academic reputation. These results prove that the efforts of Qatar to invest its wealth into education and research are bringing rewards in the ranking systems.

QU president Dr Hassan al-Derham highlighted the necessity to define if ranking is a means or an end. “At QU, we believe that ranking is a means to compare our level of excellence with other academic institutions, to measure our research effectiveness, to evaluate our commitment in meeting the needs of the labour market, and to assess our relationship with regional and international partners.

Referring to ranking standards Dr al-Derham said QU aims to reconsider all ranking standards to make them more comprehensive and flexible, in line with the needs of the region.

“We have recently met with international ranking institutions from which we received feedback in this regard. Now, it is the time to get the view of IREG Observatory as an expert in the field of ranking, especially that IREG has various ranking interests that meet the objectives of QU,” he added.
IREG Observatory president Dr Jan Sadlak said there are a number of reasons for the increased attention to excellence. Higher education became a key mechanism for economic and social development. As ranking is gaining importance in society, it is increasingly subject to competition and various expectations of the major stakeholders in higher education and science.

Dr Francisco Marmolejo, the World Bank Lead Global Solutions Group on Tertiary Education and Lead Education Specialist for India, maintained that ranking has put a tremendous pressure on higher education institutions for the wrong reasons and with the wrong tools.

“This creates an important challenge for higher education institutions. There are significant benefits of ranking as it becomes a proxy of quality of higher education institutions, a source of comparison and a good tool for decision-making. However, higher education institutions should be careful about excessively relying on rankings as the main indicator of excellence and relevance in higher education. Ranking should be seen as a means or tool not as an end.”

Participants include higher education experts and university faculty and specialists from education-related organisations from Brazil, China, India, Kazakhstan, Poland, Portugal, Saudi Arabia, Slovenia, South Africa, Turkey, the UK, the US and the UAE.

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