For two decades Qatar has been building its Education City, which is now home to six prominent American universities. The Qatar Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development has financed the project for the small, wealthy nation, which is located on the Arabian Peninsula.
Last month, however, five Arab nations began a blockade and severed diplomatic ties with Qatar, raising worries about the possible impact on Education City and its U.S. partners — Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Georgetown, Northwestern, Texas A&M and Virginia Commonwealth Universities.
Inside Higher Ed’s Scott Jaschik recently met with Omran Hamad Al Kuwari, the executive director of the foundation’s vice chairperson and CEO office, to talk about the blockade’s impact and to catch up on what’s new at Education City. A lightly edited transcript follows, below, and a podcast recording is here.
Q: What is the impact of the boycott on the universities in Education City and also the universities that are native to the area?
A: Thanks for having us. The impact has been very minimal. The first few days, of course, [there were] a lot of questions about what’s going to happen on the ground, what it means for supplies and everything. After the first few days, we saw how the government reacted very proactively. And right now it’s back to business as usual. We don’t see an impact. We haven’t seen any drop-off of students or faculty. And we’re working very closely with all our partner universities.
The impact that we are worried about is the students from the blockading countries, we’re not sure how those governments are going to allow them to come back or stay. So what we’re doing is we’re proactively reaching out to all those students, working with them to see [if there’s] anything we can do to either find them, in terms of solutions, until hopefully this conflict is resolved, or to help them stay if they can. And that’s really our primary focus right now.
Q: The timing of this wasn’t when the campuses were at full strength in terms of students and courses. Did the students from the blockading countries who were still there go home or stay?
A: It’s a bit of a mix. A lot of them stayed. We had summer classes there. So a lot of them stayed and some of them went back. It’s not clear-cut, because some of them are married to citizens of Qatar. And some are there for a semester taking summer classes. So case by case.
But what we’ve done is made sure that they know they’re welcome to stay, and everything we can do to make sure they’re comfortable, or if they’re not sure if they can come back, we were coordinating with all the main campuses — and they’ve been great — our partner universities to see if they can accommodate them for a semester or even transfer. Because the most important mission we have is from [Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani], the CEO and founder, to make sure those students aren’t impacted negatively — they don’t lose a semester, they don’t lose a year. And that’s what we want to focus on, the education component of all this. And that’s where we see we can add the most during this crisis.
Q: As the various universities joined Education City, they cited the stability and security there. For those who are still being recruited and or consider new campuses, do you worry about a change in that reputation because of what’s going on?
A: It’s normal that people would ask those questions. But we’re not concerned, because what’s happening is those people who are either recruited to start next semester are asking the embassy or their colleagues, and they’re getting the comfort they need. And the people who are already there know how it is. That’s why Education City blossomed, because it was a safe space physically as well as intellectually. People can come and learn and talk to each other and explore new ideas. That’s what we want to maintain.
Q: Education City gathered together a series of professional schools and specialized programs, while others in the region have tried to build up a whole university. How is that model working, and how do you compare it to others?
A: We’re very proud of the model that came together 20 years ago — now Virginia Commonwealth University is going to reach its 20th year, with Cornell as our first two universities. The most recent one is Northwestern. So we’re proud of that model, that you have a partner university that’s there providing the same education without any kind of interference from the host country, complete independence. And in exchange for that you get the same quality education. That was the premise for it.
What we’ve seen in the region, people are learning from that experience and coming up with models that fit them, which is great. What’s happening in Education City, which people may not realize, is that the model is evolving. It’s not just having eight universities, six of them American, that do their own programs. Also now, from a student-experience perspective, a lot that’s been done in the last few years enhanced it. So, for example, the schedules have been readjusted, so if you’re a Northwestern student you can take classes at Georgetown. You can take classes at Carnegie Mellon. And there are some cases now that we’re working on where you can take a major from one of the universities and a minor in the other. In addition to that you can do research across [institutions]. So I think that’s very innovative in itself — having the ability to take classes and experience three or four classes from three different universities. And also, on top of that, having summer program or a semester abroad or a year abroad. That’s where I think it becomes really interesting.
We’re also looking at scaling up the student population. We have this incredible infrastructure that we’ve built. We have these amazing faculty and a history of students who have come back and want to give back. And we want to be able to take advantage of that infrastructure. In addition to that, when Education City first started, it was really universities, at least the university component. But since then we’ve really focused on the research and development component. So we’ve set up these institutes looking at research but also policy development. So what’s happening now is undergraduate students can work with these researchers, or with these policy development experts, to work on real-life problems. So it’s not just about studying four years and going back. You become part of the development of society. We think the model was very unique when it first started, and it’s becoming even more unique and dynamic. We’re actually very excited about the next phase of that.
Q: Current U.S. policies are discouraging some students from the Middle East from coming here. Are you seeing any signs of students who might have come to the U.S. in the past coming to Education City?
A: Interest in the programs has been consistently high. What has had more positive impact, in terms of people showing interest, is you see in the last 10 years a lot of these alumni have graduated and taken on senior roles, moving up in organizations around the region. Every year you have more recruiters from different companies from all over the region coming to Qatar, where you want people to understand the region but have the highest standards, whether it’s Carnegie Mellon, Cornell or Georgetown.
That’s been what has increased it. I’m not sure that what’s happening in the U.S. or anywhere else around the world has had a direct impact. But we’ve seen a steady increase in interest, year after year, since we started. So that’s what we’re focusing on.
Q: Education City has a model of cultures working together. Do you worry about the hostility from some U.S. leaders, and from some Americans, to the region, to countries where most people are Muslim?
A: The current environment has basically made us believe that we have to get out there more and share our story more and invite people to come see what we’re doing. Everyone, in my experience, who has any experience with the Qatar Foundation or Education City has a different view than what you may have just mentioned. We’re very proud of what’s been happening. We really believe that it’s a model for the region and we feel that it has had a huge impact, directly and indirectly, others seeing what we’ve done and trying to do something that makes sense for them. I think that’s positive, too. So we try not to get into the politics of it — we just want to definitely get out there more.
Q: The foundation and the government have made a huge investment in Education City. How do you judge the success?
A: By any measure, if you look back 20 years ago, we’re all very proud of what has developed and we see it as a success. It’s not just the number of graduates that have come out. It’s also the mind-set, the kind of dialogue that having all these students and researchers and professors and employees there looking at education and R&D. Having them in one place and giving them a platform to speak from all over. I think that has had a huge impact on society. And at the same time also our society has grown, has developed dramatically. Our national university has improved. Our schools have improved.
So we see that the Qatar Foundation is part of that whole ecosystem, Education City in the heart of that. So it’s not just about the money that’s gone into bringing the universities in, it’s also the indirect benefits. It’s hard to imagine how Qatar — even the region — would look today if it wasn’t for the foundation. And we’re very proud of that and we think Education City is the key.