Gulf universities hope for research funds

Published online 28 October 2011

Western satellite campuses plan for growth.

Linda Nordling

For the 25 chemical-engineering students who are settling in at Texas A&M University at Qatar this month, the beginning of their master's degree marks a personal milestone.

But it is also the start of a new era for the young university — the students are enrolled on its first graduate programme since it opened in 2003. It is a key part of the drive to beef up research at the institution, which is based at the Education City mega-campus in Doha.

As other satellite campuses prepare to follow suit, the competition for students — and money — will heat up in the region. For some, it could turn into a fight for survival.

The growing emphasis on research is being matched in many of the other satellite campuses of Western universities that are springing up across the region. "There is a very clear trend for the elite campuses, coming out of what we would call research universities, to set up research activities," says Alan Ruby, senior fellow in the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Ruby, who co-authored a World Bank report on the internationalization of higher education, says there are two reasons for this trend. The first is the need to attract well-qualified staff who want to keep doing research in their new posts. The second is to prove the campuses' relevance to their host governments, which many depend on for subsidies.

The number of 'branch campuses' has exploded in the Gulf region over the past two decades. The University of Wollongong, Australia, opened the first branch campus in the region in Dubai in 1993. Today there are 50 branch campuses in the Gulf region alone, focused in the United Arab Emirates (25 are based in Dubai alone) and Qatar (see 'The growth of a desert jewel.').

These offshoots of established universities, mostly from the United States and Europe, were invited by the region's governments to supplement their higher-education system, which was old-fashioned and could not attract the best-qualified students. Traditionally, most have focused on undergraduate courses in mainly applied or professional subjects — engineering, medicine and business studies, for example.

However, science is becoming more of a political priority in the Gulf countries. Looking ahead to dwindling oil reserves, both Qatar and Abu Dhabi have set their sights on becoming 'knowledge-based economies' by 2030. In 2006, Qatar set out to raise its gross expenditure on research and development from 0.33% to 2.8% of gross domestic product over a period of five years, although no data are available to verify whether it has achieved this goal. And the governments of Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have both established national research funding agencies.

As a consequence, "research capacity and presence is the next step for the established branch campuses", says Madeleine Green, senior fellow with the International Association of Universities based in Paris and co-author of On the Ground Overseas: US Degree Programs and Branch Campuses Abroad, a 2008 publication for the American Council on Education in Washington DC.

Challenges ahead

If the chemical-engineering master's course is successful, Texas A&M University at Qatar will follow up with graduate education in other areas, including electrical, petroleum and mechanical engineering. Carnegie Mellon Qatar, Texas A&M's neighbour at Education City, is also considering offering graduate education. "It's my feeling that over the next three years there will be an active research ecosystem in Qatar where we play an important part," says linguist Richard Tucker at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, who was interim dean of the Qatar campus from August 2010 to August 2011.

But there are challenges ahead, not least in attracting students to the sciences. The traditional focus on business and management degrees in the region reflects the interests of the local youth, says Peter Heath, chancellor of the American University of Sharjah, an independent institution in the United Arab Emirates. "It's what their families want; an education leading to a profession, a career. If you are an economist you work in a university or a governmental office. If you study biology they think you can only become a teacher," Heath says.

Attracting sufficient numbers of domestic students is another sticking point. "Sheer population is working against you. Qatar has one of the smallest populations compared with the rest of the region," says Eric Frankson, coordinator of research at Texas A&M University at Qatar. The issue is a sensitive one because local governments paying for students' degrees expect to see nationals benefit — including sufficient numbers of Qataris graduating from the courses. At a recent graduation ceremony at the Masdar Institute of Science and Technology, an Abu Dhabi-based graduate-level initiative that collaborates with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, local benefactors were reportedly furious about the high proportion of students who originated from Jordan, Egypt, Pakistan, the United States and India.

Growing competition

The global financial turbulence is also making some of the region's governments think about scaling back their spending plans, says Tariq Ali, former vice-president of the Masdar Institute and currently executive director for strategic initiatives at Envision ALR, a technology investment company headquartered in Zurich. In the United Arab Emirates, several scientists are still waiting for grants that were awarded by the national research foundation in 2009. And in Abu Dhabi, the construction of a state-of-the-art building for the US$1.5-billion New York University campus at the luxury Saadiyat Island is taking longer than planned, partly as a consequence of a general property slump in the emirate.

Local competition for research grants is also heating up. In recent years, some Gulf nations have invested heavily in domestic education institutions, such as the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Thuwal, Saudi Arabia. In Abu Dhabi, the main providers of science education are two national institutions — the Khalifa University and the Masdar Institute. And in Qatar, the number of research articles produced by Qatar University nearly doubled from 134 in 2008 to 208 in 2010.

Ruby expects to see increasing competition for research funding between these national universities and the foreign satellite campuses. "Branch campuses are going to have to keep their quality up," he says. Ultimately, Ruby expects that some of the branch campuses will close owing to financial pressures. "Universities that have established branches overseas without a robust business plan will no doubt lead to a number of failures in the current economic climate," agrees Ali.

However, Tucker remains upbeat about the future. "My sense is that, 10 to 15 years from now, Education City will be a thriving concern. When 2030 comes, and the vision becomes a reality, I think we will be there to celebrate with the Emir."

This was first published by Nature on 27 October 2011