Professor Sheikha Abdulla Al-Misnad sat down with the Upper Reach team to discuss QatarUniversity's role in helping the country acheive its development aspirations.
Taking into account the four guiding principles of the Vision, and the nation’s rapid development in recent years, how will the State of Qatar realise its socioeconomic aspirations?
Human development is the first of the QNV2030’s priorities, and education is the backbone of human development. The development of a high quality educational system is vital to fostering responsible citizenship and effective societal engagement and therefore critical to achieving the National Vision. As such, it was natural that the national university’s Strategic Plan would be closely linked to the national vision and to the national development strategy as they relate to human development.
Let me illustrate this link with a few examples:
The country’s vision is to build an educational system that reflects international best practices and that rivals some of the best systems in the world. At QU - we have used international accreditation and other benchmarking tools from some of the world’s most prestigious academic accreditation bodies as a platform for developing our programs in line with those best practices. Most of our programs and colleges are now accredited by academic accreditation organizations such as ABET for engineering, The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), the National Accrediting Agency for Clinical Laboratory Sciences, the Royal Statistical Society, the International Recognition in Teacher Education and many others .
In addition to working on the quality and competitiveness of our own programs, we have also been contributing to the development of the k-12 system through the College of Education. Our oldest college has been a long-standing partner with relevant government organizations in providing quality teachers’ education to support the k-12 reforms in the country.
Additionally, the country’s vision stresses opportunities for nationals to further their education and skills. In addition to our academic offerings which are designed for a booming labor market, the university has developed programs for different target groups including students, faculty members, and the society at large. For students, the University provides unique opportunities like the Scholarship Program which sponsors nationals to complete their graduate studies in some of the best universities worldwide. Upon graduation these students come back to enrich the academic landscape of the university or to take on important roles elsewhere in society. Faculty members receive career development and training opportunities through the university’s national capacity building program, while continuing education courses are offered to members of society at various stages of their professional lives reflecting this commitment to empowering a highly skilled national workforce and building national capacity.
The focus in the national vision is not just on education, but on a high caliber of education that fosters critical and analytical thinking and innovation. It stresses social cohesion and respect for Qatari values and heritage. These values and skills are reflected in our core curriculum program (or general education program as it is known elsewhere), which is a program that every QU student will undertake regardless of specialization.
Finally, the national university’s mission places new emphasis on research in line with the national aspirations in research and the creation of new knowledge. QU’s renewed focus on research has resulted in exponential growth in research productivity, with QU currently becoming the fastest growing university in research in the region at an compound annual growth rate of 28.7% (based on a 2012 comparative study). Research funding for faculty was at 220 million dollars in 2013-2014; 1,078 undergraduate students benefitted from student research grants, and more than 480 research projects were undertaken in the last academic year with 133 research collaborations around the globe.
What are the challenges facing the development of education sector in Qatar?
The education scene in Qatar is very dynamic, with numerous opportunities and challenges. From the standpoint of the national university, three stand out:
The enrolment rise is a reflection of both the demographic trajectory of Qatar as well as increased accessibility and diversity in higher education. The opportunities arising from such rapid growth include the opportunity to offer new programs, broaden the impact that education has on society and foster a rich and diverse community of innovators.
The emphasis on student success conveys our determination to keep our eyes on the quality of education across various levels as we improve accessibility and increase the variety of programs offered, including graduate programs. This includes the experience inside the classroom as well as expansion in remedial learning, integration of new technology and other learning support functions. One advantage of this emphasis on student success is the attention given to the entire student experience including the flow of students into and through the university. Indeed, growth in academic support services for students and focus on remedial learning may be the chief development resulting from increased accessibility to higher education in the past few years. At Qatar University for example, this has translated into the launching of a First Year Experience Program, an improved and expanded Orientation Program, more focus on quality academic advising, and upgraded learning support centers and student support functions.
As for content of the curriculum, my focus here will be on the core curriculum which delivers a set of skills and knowledge deemed essential for every graduate, regardless of their specialization. Questions about the degree to which the current core curriculum prepares graduates for the foreseeable future, about what emerging economies and cultures should influence the philosophy and content included in the core curriculum, and about the range of information and skills that graduates need to cope with and lead in a fast-changing are essential strategic undertakings. Our aim is to teach students how to think, rather than compelling them to necessarily accept the ideas presented, and the core curriculum program is being reviewed with such thoughts in mind.
Higher Education in Qatar
Would you please discuss with us the historical development of the Qatari education system and the importance of public research institutions within this transformation?
In the Gulf, the creation of modern public education was strongly tied to the discovery of oil and the consequent rise in oil revenues. Tremendous wealth in countries with small national populations presented a unique opportunity to invest in creating education systems with exceptional opportunities and prospects accessible to a very wide sector of the national population. Prior to this, public education was highly linked to religious education and was focused on teaching the Holy Quran, reading, writing, and basic knowledge using rote learning often through religious small schooling traditions called “kuttaab”. In the 60s and 70s modern public education systems expanded to catch up with the economic growth brought about by the oil wealth. Since then k-12 as well as higher education have been transformed into modern and comprehensive system adopting international best practices and engendering ambitious development agendas.
What is Qatarisation’s role and importance in relation to higher education?
I think Qatarization is about empowering Qatari people to lead their own nation through the various institutions that constitute government, private sector and civil society; it is not simply about replacing the expat workforce with a national one. Quality Qatarization is achieved by giving all Qatari nationals the opportunities and tools to fulfill their best potential based on their own interests and abilities.
Our role within the Qatarization agenda is twofold:
a) We are a key partner to national institutions as well as major private sector employers in their nationalization efforts.
b) At the same time, we are committed to a Qatarziation process within our own faculty and employee body. Programs like the Scholarship Program for students and the National Capacity Building Program for faculty are examples of university initiatives targeting quality Qatarization.
The Scholarship Program has had notable success in the past few years with 14 returned scholars this year, 6 PhD holders and 8 MAs. The number of students currently on scholarships is 61, up from 52 last year.
As the most prominent university in Qatar, how would you describe the genesis of the university, its contribution to the nation’s education system as well as going through with us your recent reforms?
Established to prepare school teachers and civil servants in 1973, Qatar University was the only institution for higher education in the country. With economic growth, the introduction of international universities and most importantly the launch of an ambitious educational reform project in 2003, QU has since broadened its offering and transformed itself into a comprehensive nation-building institution, highly competitive among its counterparts in the region and able to empower some of the country’s most influential leaders, with graduates—some 38,000— occupying many leadership positions in government and industry.
Today, the university offers an array of academic undergraduate and graduate programs (around 60 undergraduate and 24 graduate), most of which are recognized by prestigious international academic accreditation bodies, it is actively engaged in research, offers community outreach programs, and enjoys numerous local and international partnerships.
The institution has been focused on, and largely successful in, meeting international best practices, adopting new forms of delivery and striving to find a balance between cultural specificities and global developments in education and academia.
What academic collaborations and/or direct partnerships between the university and local Qatari businesses and/or institutions, (e.g. internship programs) have been formed in order to encourage a strong education-human resource link?
We enjoy a large portfolio of collaborations with a wide range of academic, industrial, government and civil society partners. They cover a number of activities including internships, student sponsorship, research collaboration, advisory to industry, faculty chairs, student exchange and many others. These partnerships are important, not only because they give our students a better experience both during their study at Qatar University and after graduation, but also because they maintain effective links between education and the labor market.
As a true “Qatari Education,” what differentiates Qatar University from the other higher education institutions in Qatar?
I think our niche is organic integration with the Qatari society. This goes beyond our ties to industry and how they impact our curriculum in ways that make it more relevant to local needs and aspirations. It also goes beyond our campus culture and student life. QU’s integration with society has been such a defining characteristic throughout the history of the institution. I think that anyone who spends sufficient time on the QU campus can sense an ethos of combining international standards with a very local environment. From the wind-tower-inspired Islamic architecture, to gender segregated campuses, to the content of our core curriculum… (the list is long); balancing national identity and international best practice has been a focus perhaps not unlike many other thriving universities in non-Western cultures.
What do you expect the impact of Qatar 2022 to be on Qatar and Qatar University, as it attracts visitors to the state from all over the world, many for the first time?
Undoubtedly the prospect of being the first Arab nation to host the World Cup games in 2022 is a tremendous source of pride and motivation to many Qataris. An event of this magnitude has substantial implications in terms of global exposure, new infrastructure, and expansion of job opportunities all of which are opportunities our students will benefit from.
As the national institution of higher education, we are keen to prepare graduates for such jobs and to contribute to the capacity needed to host this mega-event. At the same time, as academics, we feel compelled to analyze cultural and social implications, such as the impact on the sense of identity and relationship to the other.
Interestingly on this note, Qatar University’s Social and Economic Survey Institute is conducting a survey research study examining the impact that hosting the Word Cup will have on the quality of life in Qatar and looking more broadly at the types of changes the event preparations will bring to the country.
Qatar and the United Kingdom
Does any collaboration between Qatar University and UK institutions currently exist, and would you mind describing the potential for future cooperation in the development of Qatar as a regional education and R and D hub?
We have 6 MoUs with UK Universities. Cooperation is well established and goes beyond MoUs especially with the links we have through the many faculty members who graduated from UK universities and who kept research ties with their colleagues in the UK.
The potential for future collaboration is growing especially with the creation of new graduate programs that are developed in partnership with UK institutions. Moreover, many QNRF proposals are submitted with UK based PI. It would be difficult to come up with an exhaustive list of partner institutions but some that come to mind are Imperial College, University College London, University of Durham and University of Edinburgh.
Personal Opinion and Legacy
As an exceptional educator and indeed a pillar of Qatar’s education sector, you have witnessed over the last three decades an immense expansion of the economy as a whole and of course of your sector with the establishment of the Qatar Foundation, and the building of Education city.
Having graduated yourself from Qatar University in 1978, what aspects of either the curriculum or University life do you wish were in place when you studied here?
It wouldn’t be a fair comparison. Qatar University in 1978 responded to a completely different Qatar! The society has changed so much since then, education has changed so much, the world has changed so much! I wouldn’t even know where to begin. But to try to address your question, albeit partially, I would say the diversity of programs that we have today, opportunities for graduate study, and research opportunities are key developments that students at my time of study at QU didn’t have.
Considering your education both at Qatar University and later at Durham University in England, you are the perfect example of excellence achieved through a mix of local and international education. What advantages do you think your own academic background gave you, and how would you recommend students embrace the academic world?
Thank you for your kind words. I think the international experience contributes to professional and personal growth and development well beyond the formal education earned or degree attained. It broadens one’s horizons and enables adaptive analytic skills as well as the ability to move effectively between micro and macro views both of which are important to different situations. Likewise a local education cements one’s connection to their culture and identity and helps them understand the predicaments and particularities of their own society. When combined with an international experience, I think a local education enables greater appreciation for both native identity the international outlook. I strongly encourage every student, especially those interested in academic careers, to avail of opportunities to complete their graduate studies abroad.