What next for the standard bearers of Gulf higher education?

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Darwish Al-Emadi

Darwish Al-Emadi traces the development of national universities in GCC countries. John O’Leary hears his verdict on their changing roles and challenges for the future.

Universities are relatively new to the Gulf region, as is the idea that higher education should be available to more than just a small elite. The first national university in the six countries that now make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was established only 60 years ago, the most recent have been in operation for little more than 30 years.

But Dr Darwish Al-Emadi, chief strategy and development officer at Qatar University, says that the role of the six national universities has expanded in recent years, and their importance to the social and economic development of the region has grown in consequence.

“The establishment of universities coincided with winning independence as former colonies,” Dr Al-Emadi says. “The social fabric was very different – there were smaller numbers of people and they had a shared background and values.

“Qatar, for example, had 109,000 people in 1970, but 2,673,000 in 2016. There has been a population explosion in the region and huge increases in GDP.”

Dr Al-Emadi stresses that the whole character of the Gulf countries has changed since the national universities were established. “In the 1960s and 1970s the GCC countries were peripheral in the region. The engine of the Arab world was Nasser’s Egypt and the Gulf countries didn’t play a major role in decision-making.

“The big players now are the GCC countries. They have become essential to the region both economically and politically. The role of universities has changed accordingly.”

Nor is the region immune from the upheavals that have beset the wider Middle East, according to Dr Al-Emadi. “Now there are problems in Syria, Iraq and Yemen,” he says. “Others think they are safe, but the whole region is unstable.”

In their early years, the role of the national universities was limited to producing educated manpower. “The challenge for them now is not just manpower,” Dr Al-Emadi says. “That is still key but not sufficient. They are also responsible for research, as think tanks, and helping to provide international standing. They have much more proactive roles.”

With their expanded role has come greater involvement of the state. “Governments previously were prepared to trust universities to spend their budgets, but now there is a political imperative,” Dr Al-Emadi says. “There is a huge demand on universities not only to design programmes but to provide all types of service.

“Most national universities started as teaching institutions but are now committed to research, particularly as a rankings measure. There is great pressure to do well in rankings because they are the yardsticks of performance – an effective tool, whatever we think of them.”

In addition, the impact of research must be demonstrated – something that was not required in the 1970s. “In general, there is more interaction and more expectation from government,” Dr Al-Emadi says.

The universities have embraced their role in the formation of national policies, and would like to go further. “Universities want to be seen as think tanks, whereas previously consultants or think tanks were from the West, Dr Al-Emadi says. “It is not an easy thing to take that role immediately. Governments still like blue eyes and fair hair. It is difficult to convince governments and if we fail, we go back to square one.”

“Nowadays universities are expected to be very productive – and not just in teaching and research, Dr Al-Emadi says. “How to do more with less resources and prepare students for things that no one even knows about at the moment is a difficult task – 50% of jobs are expected to change or disappear in the next 10 years. We are living in an unpredictable world in terms of the labour market.”

Up to now, Dr Al-Emadi believes, the national universities have a proud record. “The universities have been responsible, proactive and creative at a time when national universities are not the only priority for their country,” he says.

But there are challenges ahead. In Qatar, for example, more than a quarter of the population is under 25 and the demand for higher education is naturally rising.

Qatar University, where Dr Al-Emadi has spent most of his career, has offered a classic story of development since its foundation by decree of the Emir in 1973 as the first national College of Education. Starting out with 57 male and 93 female students, it has grown into a university of 20,000 students.

Even by 1977, Qatar’s rapid development highlighted the need for expansion and new areas of specialisation, so four colleges were formed, for education, humanities and social sciences, Sharia, law and Islamic Studies, and science. Engineering was added in 1980 and business in 1985.

When the Qatar Foundation was established in 1996 and Education City opened in Doha, a new era of competition arrived, and in 2003, the Qatar University embarked on an ambitious reform plan. Key performance areas were identified, which focused on promoting quality education and efficient and effective services.  The Strategic Plan also renewed the focus on research, leading to a growing number of satellite research centres.  Community service also became a focus, and many facilities and services were enhanced to meet the needs of the public.

Today, the university’s nine colleges include business and economics, health sciences, medicine and Sharia and Islamic studies. The 2,000 faculty members are encouraged to engage with and remain active in the community, as well as carrying out research.

The University of Qatar (QU) is another that is prioritising innovation and entrepreneurship in order to play a leading role in the national economy.

Qatar’s Economic Vision for 2030 is clear about the importance of this mission. It notes that 4,000 Qataris a year are entering the labour market with at least a first degree, but the quality and number of jobs available will not satisfy demand unless there are changes.

Aware of a looming decline in the size and value of the oil reserves that have ensured prosperity in the past, the government is investing for the future, improving its human capital through education and training, particularly in the field of applied sciences. The hope is that a thriving private sector can provide attractive career opportunities to suitably skilled Qataris, allowing the government to reduce the size of the public sector.

QU is focusing on new technologies like artificial intelligence, 3D printing, big data, robotics and cloud computing to help forge the new economy.

Throughout the GCC, however, governments are still spending less than 2% of GDP on research. “What we are spending on research is not comparable with best practice across the world, but it is still greatly increased,” Dr AlEmadi says. “We are talking about a good amount of money, and that was not the case in previous years.”

The Qatar Research Fund is a leading example. Sixty per cent of the money it provides has to be spent in the country, and Qatar University is one of the largest collaborators.

“There are more constraints now, but not what might have been expected after the crash,” Dr Al-Emadi says. “Budgets have not been slashed because governments know that many people would leave if that happened.”

“But we need to emphasise research more because otherwise universities will not be creative and influential. We need to convince policy makers that universities will have a positive effect on societies in an era of tighter funding.”

Darwish Al-Emadi is chief strategy and development officer at Qatar University (QU). His career in higher education spans more than three decades, spent mostly at QU in a variety of academic leadership positions. After taking a PhD in linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, Dr Al-Emadi was appointed assistant professor and subsequently associate professor in the Department of English and Modern European Languages. He was dean of the College of Science and Humanities from 1995 to 2000 and then dean of the Graduate School. In 2008, Dr Al-Emadi became the founding director of the QU Social and Economic Survey Research Institute, with a mandate to conduct high-quality academic research in areas of interest to Qatari society. In 2014, he assumed the position of associate vice president for research operations, overseeing the operation of five research centres, before becoming acting vice president for research in 2015. Dr Al-Emadi’s research interests cover sociolinguistics and survey research. He is currently the chair of the Scientific Advisory Committee of the World Values Survey Association, and a member of the scientific advisory committees of the Arab Barometer initiative and the European University Institute.