8 June 2012
- From the section Business
When oil rich countries get involved in global education projects, it is easy to be cynical and only expect some air-brushed philanthropy and gold-plated business school sponsorships.
But the Gulf state of Qatar is providing something more substantial.
So much so that it is becoming one of the most significant players in the field of education innovation, supporting a raft of projects from grassroots basic literacy through to high-end university research.
As well as trying to fast-forward its own education system, it is supporting projects in some of the toughest environments.
The man at the centre of many of Qatar’s education initiatives is Sheikh Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani, a member of Qatar’s ruling family and a former university professor.
Looking at the epic scale of Qatar’s spending on education this must make him one of the world’s most ambitious ex-teachers.
Speaking in London, he set out the strategic thinking. When the oil runs out, they want to be left with a viable, advanced economy.
It’s something like lottery winners who buy their children the best education, so that they’ll be able to fend for themselves in the years ahead.
So they’re recycling their gas and oil into knowledge – building universities, reforming the school system, improving vocational training and setting up an international forum for finding the most effective forms of innovation.
“The blessing of the oil and gas won’t last forever – so focusing on something sustainable is more important,” says Dr Abdulla.
But a high quality education system is not created overnight – so he says they decided to “jump start” this with overseas partnerships.
Eight international universities, predominantly from the US, set up state of the art bases in Qatar’s Education City campus.
This multi-billion dollar investment, a kind of academic irrigation project, was intended to provide a short-term, accelerated development of a regional research hub.
But Dr Abdulla, president of the over-arching university, says the longer-term and tougher challenge is to develop home-grown high-quality institutions.
“There is no way forward without putting education as a priority, especially in the Arab world,” he says.
The events of the Arab Spring have shown the dissatisfaction of a young population, with rising unemployment and a lack of opportunities for young graduates.
“We need to find an education that serves their needs,” he says.
But what has been distinctive about Qatar’s investment has been its willingness to support international projects.
The WISE summit – World Innovation Summit for Education – is designed as a catalyst for innovation. Now in its fourth year, it brings together education leaders to talk about what works in improving schools.
“We want it to be about action – we need things to come out of this three-day meeting and not just talk,” he says.
The summit identifies examples of good practice – and the accompanying WISE awards have supported projects in Africa, south Asia, South America and Europe.
It is also helping to fund the rebuilding of Haiti’s schools and health service after the earthquake – a long way from the headlines and its own regional sphere of influence.
Nobel for education
There has never been a Nobel prize for education – and it is the Qataris who have been the first to create an equivalent, launching the WISE prize last year, worth $500,000 (£319,000).
“We talk about the importance of education, but there was nothing prestigious globally that really reflected that,” says Dr Abdulla.
The first winner, Sir Fazle Hasan Abed from Bangladesh, was recognised for a lifetime’s work bringing basic primary education to some of the world’s poorest communities, from Afghanistan to South Sudan.
Linking many of these schemes is the Qatar Foundation, which channels funds towards education and science.
The most visible international profile of the Qatar Foundation is on the shirts of Barcelona football club.
There is a cultural dimension to all this reaching out, with Qatar acting as a bridge between the West and the Arab world.
Dr Abdulla says human contacts are a really important part of this – and he is proud that the international universities in Qatar have 85 different nationalities among the students.
But he hesitates about whether he should say publicly there is much “ignorance” about his region.
“We need to get exchanges between cultures and students because this dialogue isn’t done enough. We believe education should match the idea of being a bridge,” he said.
There are going to be cultural differences, he says. “The only way to overcome these problems is open dialogue.”
Dr Abdulla is an engaging speaker with flawless English. The only word he didn’t seem familiar with was “EasyJet”.
But he is also distinctive in having a personal passion for his education projects. He was once a teacher of engineering who says he misses the classroom.
“That’s why I’ve been involved in this all my life.
“The rewards I get personally are great. It’s satisfying working with students, and when you see them growing, it is really a privilege.
“But I think education can happen in all levels of life. It doesn’t have to be in the classroom, everyone should be participating, parents and teachers.”
Dr Abdulla is optimistic about his country’s faith in the transformative powers of education.
“Having been blessed with the wealth there is no better way of using it than education,” he says.
Despite Qatar having the highest GDP per capita of any country in the world, it is perched in a precarious and restless region.
Charles Clarke, former UK education secretary and home secretary, spoke recently at a higher education conference in Cairo, Egypt.
Mr Clarke says with the demands of a thrusting young population, “high quality higher education is absolutely vital to the Arab world”.
And he warned of the risks if the young “sheared off” from society.
‘Freedom of inquiry’
The most urgent challenge, he says, was to create a “system of governance that allows university independence”.
“There needs to be a culture of freedom of inquiry.”
At the Cairo conference, he said there were complaints from academics in the region about a lack of free expression.
The event, run by the Alexandria Trust, considered how a credible education press could improve independent university systems.
And Mr Clarke says that without such academic independence it wasn’t possible to achieve academic excellence.
The World Bank has also emphasised the need for an education system in the Arab world which gives young people the skills needed for the modern labour market.
It stresses the importance of meeting the growing demand for university education – and the consequent need for jobs for the rising number of graduates.
Qatar is using its gas and oil income to stay ahead of the curve.
This has seen Qatari investors buying up landmark property like Monopoly players on a lucky roll.
But perhaps the place to look for the long strategy is the Qatar Foundation’s symbol – the Sidra tree.
Instead of images of luxury, this is a tough, tenacious tree, that survives in the hardship of the desert.