The growth in both the number and quality of university places in Qatar is impressive. Now what is needed is comparable growth in local employment opportunities.
There are 34 higher education institutes in Qatar, some 400 academic programmes and over 40,000 students – a 13% increase on 2022. There was a 4% compound annual growth of enrolment in the period 2016-2020. At school age, education is free for Qatari nationals, and there is a literacy rate of 99%, among the highest in the world.
There are both public and private, for-profit universities. The facilities and education include world-class, hi-tech centres. There is e-learning, innovative use of artificial intelligence and gamification in the learning process. There is a policy commitment to support vocational training, and an evolution from STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teaching towards STEAM, which incorporates the arts and seeks to combine creativity and entrepreneurialism with technological prowess, as a foundation for encouraging a hi-tech economy. A comprehensive system of scholarships gives support to the brightest students, with over 3,000 students on a scholarship scheme in 2023.
Qatar has invested heavily in US universities. It hosts campuses for six US universities: Carnegie Mellon, Weill Cornell Medicine, Georgetown, Virginia Commonwealth, Texas A&M, and Northwestern University. The sums invested have been substantial.
For the state of Qatar, these investments in education have resulted in the creation of a regional educational hub, and form a central part of the National Vision 2030, as part of a strategy of building a knowledge economy.
While these developments are highly positive in terms of giving young people opportunities to study at the highest academic levels, it is necessary to monitor the extent to which the sector is contributing to economic development. With several thousand graduates each year, in a population of just 3mn, there is a risk that there are too many graduates for the local economy, with a consequent brain drain. In short, the growth in graduates appears to be outstripping employment growth and population growth.
The presence of a cluster of first-class further education campuses holds the promise of becoming an export earner in its own right, attracting overseas students, especially from other Middle Eastern countries, but the data available so far indicates that most undergraduates are Qataris. While students pay fees, it is uncertain the extent to which the private universities are profit-making.
Bright students from neighbouring countries might prefer to study at Cornell University in the US, rather than at the Qatar campus, as they would be living in an English-speaking country, would have more options for promising internships that may lead to job offers, and may even gain the opportunity for a secondary citizenship with a western nation.
This is a challenge that policy-makers need to address, in order to fulfil the bold objectives of the National Vision 2030. As discussed in a previous article, the case is strong for major industrial investments, similar to the NEOM regional development in Saudi Arabia, to help create the high-quality employment opportunities of the future.
Many of the foundations are in place for Qatar to become a world-class business centre in the global knowledge economy and other sectors. Higher education is central to this objective, and the growth in high-quality university places is promising, but there is a need for a commensurate increase in employment opportunities appropriate for those who are graduating.
  • The author is a Qatari banker, with many years of experience in the banking sector in senior positions.
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