By OMAR EL AKKAD
Toronto Globe and Mail
February 25, 2006
The halls are immaculate and bright. Massive egg-shaped lecture halls were designed by Japanese architects endowed with a virtually limitless budget. Classroom walls are made of floor-to-ceiling whiteboards, so students and teachers can write ideas down wherever they're standing.
At the touch of a button, a massive computer screen rises out of a classroom table, enabling students to study digitized tissue samples without a microscope. Private security staff monitors the entrances and exits. In many ways, this is the best education money can buy.
Welcome to Education City: the epicenter of the university franchising business.
Built on the outskirts of Doha, the capital city of the energy-rich gulf state of Qatar, Education City is perhaps the most ambitious attempt to create a knowledge economy anywhere in the world.
The massive development is planned to house branch campuses of Cornell, Texas A&M, Carnegie-Mellon, Georgetown and other universities and colleges, as well as a secondary school, a science and technology park and the headquarters of Al Jazeera children's television, all within walking distance of one another. The latest blueprints put the site's size at about nine square kilometers, but the plans have a habit of expanding.
No one has graduated from Education City's institutes yet. The student body numbers about 300, or about 7.5 acres of space for every student.
Picking up the tab for all of this is the Qatar Foundation, a government project founded by Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the country's ruler, shortly after he took power from his father in a bloodless coup 10 years ago. Effectively, the monarchy pays for all the facilities (some of which have been completed, but most of which are currently being built at a furious pace) and other costs.
The universities manage the educational side of things, importing professors and curricula. There is no official figure for how much the project will cost - as one official put it, the Qatar Foundation doesn't care about those kinds of numbers. However, just the teaching and research hospital that is set to be built here for the students of Cornell medical school is to be funded by an $8-billion government endowment.
For years, Qatar has been among the richest nations in the world thanks to its vast reserve of natural gas. However technological advances that allow for easier cooling and shipping of the commodity, as well as soaring energy prices, have made the country even more flush with cash. Oil and gas account for about 60 per cent of gross domestic product, and the country is expected to become the world's biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas by next year.
Now, like other gulf states, Qatar's ruling family is attempting to diversify its economy from the traditional energy-based model. But while countries such as the United Arab Emirates focus on areas such as tourism, the focus in Qatar is in large part on education.
The university directors brought in from the United States to manage Education City's branch campuses are quick to point out that these are not franchise operations. The admissions criteria, selection process and tuition levels are identical to those in the United States (although Qatari students and some non-Qataris who attend here are largely subsidized by the Qatari government or local corporations). When students graduate, their degrees makes no mention of which campus they attended.
"We're not like Carnegie-Mellon (University)," says CMU's Qatar branch dean Charles Thorpe. "We are Carnegie-Mellon."
Still, there is a distinctly local feel to the brand new facilities. Hallway signs direct passersby to the faculty offices, research facilities and prayer rooms. The student lounge notice board contains announcements about the student council and a list of Danish companies to boycott. In many programs, women outnumber men, in part because, for many of the region's young women, moving to the West to go to school isn't an option.
But bridging cultural gaps is a big part of what the Education City project is trying to achieve, both at the education and business development level.
The Qatar Science and Technology Park, also located in Education City, is implementing a mentoring program that helps local companies develop the cultural and operational skills to go international, but also provides similar help to multinational companies looking to operate in Doha.
"What we're trying to do is take away barriers to doing business," says Eulian Roberts, the park's chief executive officer.
To lure investment, the park established a free zone on site, where foreign companies enjoy no taxes, duty-free importing and exporting and unrestricted repatriation of capital and profits.
General Electric Co., Exxon Mobil Corp. and Microsoft Corp. have all signed up.
by Scripps Howard News Service, www.shns.com
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