Ambitious 10-year reforms raise standards at Qatar University

As skyscrapers rise from the sand and Qatar prepares for the 2022 FIFA World Cup, higher education has become a hot topic in this Gulf state with the highest GDP per capita in the world.

Mindful that its oil and gas wealth gives it the opportunity to arm its citizens with the highest educational standards, the ruling Thani family is pouring money into making Qatar University a first-rate institution for its people as well as a world-class university that will attract researchers and academics globally.

Under its president for the past 10 years, the estimable Professor Sheikha Abdulla Al-Misnad, who was educated at Qatar and Durham universities, the university has embarked on far-reaching reform with the aim of raising standards for its 15,000 students, attracting quality professors and becoming globally competitive.

It has been a long haul.

Qatar University reforms

Beginning in 2003, when consultants were appointed to start the work, the reforms are still a work in progress.

The latest Western organisation to have been commissioned to grapple with outstanding issues – following on the heels of the Boston Consulting Group and Rand – is the Higher Education Policy Institute, or HEPI, based in the United Kingdom and led by the British expert Bahram Bekhradnia.

HEPI has considerable experience of universities around the world, having worked with governments in more than 30 countries, so Qatar University is buying among the best specialist advice available. A team of six consultants appointed by HEPI has made two visits to Qatar and has produced a report whose recommendations will be implemented this year.

“The reform project has been very ambitious from the beginning and it’s been difficult,” said Al-Misnad with refreshing honesty. “What has made it successful is the political support we have had in Qatar and the economic situation of the country.

“But sometimes I think that if we had started with a new university it would have been easier,” she told University World News in an interview.

There has been a lot to do. In the past 10 years policies had to be written covering all aspects of the university, the academic and administrative structures have been reformed and a board of regents established as the governing body. All faculties are, where possible, accredited by international accrediting bodies.

The aim has been to make the university more dynamic, according to Al-Misnad.

“It was very tough at the beginning,” she says. “There have been so many resentments by academics and from outside, and from employees who get used to the old way of doing things. We introduced an appraisal system. We have asked them to become accountable for what they do. It was very tough – and it is still tough to some extent.”

Poorly prepared students

One of the thorniest issues has been that of poorly prepared students.

This has been a long-term problem to do with the culture of this constitutional monarchy and presents Al-Misnad with a tricky political conundrum: how to square the need to be a national university providing skills for local school-leavers while at the same time engaging in cutting-edge international research to boost the economy.

Qataris have regarded entry to Qatar University as a right until now. Sixty per cent of the university’s students are Qatari and they have been able to graduate on what would be regarded internationally as low Grade Point Average scores, below 0.15. Few other universities in the world do that.

“We have said that students must graduate on a GPA of 0.20 or above,” she says. “Things like that aren’t much but in a society which is comfortable, feels entitled and lacks motivation it makes our work much harder.”

Al-Misnad’s dilemma is how to push standards up and make it tougher to graduate without sending the failure rate soaring and creating a storm of protest locally. She will only be able to do this by laying on more and better organised remedial courses for students who are failing to make the grade, to ensure that they do come up to scratch.

A lot of extra learning support goes on at the moment but more is clearly needed.

“Asking students to follow certain standards whereby they could not graduate until they reached a certain level, that created a lot of problems because people were not used to it,” she said. “A lot regarded a degree from Qatar University as a right rather than an opportunity where you have to work hard to achieve.

“In a small country like Qatar where there is a small population and considerable wealth, the people develop this culture of entitlement – and a degree from the university is seen as an entitlement.

“So, when you tell people that in order to achieve they have to follow certain rules, that is not accepted.”

Al-Misnad made it clear that she and her senior team at the university have come in for a lot of flak from the press in Qatar, on a daily basis and on the front pages. But they have withstood the onslaught and the result is a transformed institution with proper rules, regulations and policies.

“We have not achieved all we wanted to achieve,” she says. “There are still things we need to work at. In education you never really reach the end. You are always evolving.”

Too few male students

Another thorny issue is the small percentage of Qatari men going to university, caused by the fact that they can walk into well-paid government jobs in administration, the army or police without a degree.

Qatar is an ambitious country that has experienced dynamic economic growth, but sometimes its wealth works against it, according to Al-Misnad.

The student population of the University of Qatar is only 25% male. In 2011 there were no Qatari male graduates of science at the university.

This is a matter of national concern and considerable effort is going into addressing the question of how to motivate men to obtain a higher education.

“We have not figured out how to solve this yet,” she said. “But we have introduced a lot of initiatives in an effort to tackle it.”

One of these is a collaboration with three high schools to bring boys onto campus and get them to build a racing car, for example. At the end of the year they have a chance to compete in their own version of Formula One.

Postgraduate push, more competition

In recent years the university has changed its focus to concentrate on developing research as well as on teaching undergraduates. To this end it has been expanding areas of postgraduate study.

There are now 17 masters as well as PhD programmes in engineering and the environment, and a professional PhD in pharmacy.

It has not been easy for Qatar University to recruit faculty from overseas because so many universities are opening in the Gulf – but the university’s research capacity is increasing.

This would seem to put it in competition with Hamad bin Khalifa University, or HBKU, established a few kilometres away as a graduate school with substantial foreign input from mainly American universities.

Al-Misnad denied this while saying that all universities are in competition to some extent and that the more education and research in Qatar the better. “Unlike HBKU we are a comprehensive university covering undergraduates and postgraduates,” she said. “But we work with them a lot."

Qatar University’s president went further. Having branch campuses of universities such as Georgetown, Northwestern and Carnegie Mellon at HBKU has added great value to academic life in Qatar, she said.

“All these have great traditions and from a scholarship perspective it’s a great thing. The advantages outweigh the disadvantages.”

The university also works with the grade school system in Qatar through its college of education, which is responsible for training teachers. The college adopts eight low-performing schools a year and works with them to help them with management, pedagogy and with pushing up children’s grades.

She came back again to the question of motivation. One of the big problems in the country is motivating its people. “We struggle with motivation,” she says. “There are a lot of opportunities for young people but how do you develop the interests of the young people to do something worthwhile long-term? This is a big challenge.

“There are some young people who are looking for something beyond a good and secure government job but there are not many.”

In an attempt to change this, the university has set up an entrepreneurship centre in the business school to influence the culture and help students who want to start up something independently of government.

Ambitions and strides

For a country that has modernised so swiftly, this former pearl-fishing centre does not lack ambition.

Big plans are afoot to turn Qatar University into a residential campus complete with two student residence complexes housing 450 students each together with sporting and leisure facilities, a cafeteria and supermarket.

Six new research centres have been created in the space of two years.

“In 2003 we were talking about a small teaching university,” said Al-Misnad. “Now we have become a huge place with research centres, a research budget and PhD programmes. All of this has happened in the past five to six years.”

As she knows, you cannot achieve a knowledge economy overnight. It takes a lot of effort. But she is putting the building blocks in place.


Population: 250,000 Qataris; 1.75 million expatriates.
History: The first public primary school opened in 1952. Qatar University is the only government university: it began as a college of education in 1973 and became a fully-fledged university in 1977.
Number of students: 15,000
Participation rate: 60% of high school graduates gain entry to Qatar University each year.
Faculties: Education, engineering, Islamic studies, art and science, pharmacy, business and law.
Language of instruction: Education, arts and social sciences are taught in Arabic; natural sciences, engineering and business are taught in English.

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