Gulf opens for UCL as Qatari campus aims to unearth past
Regional cash bankrolls postgraduate focus, but critics warn of reputational risks. John Gill writes
Six months after the Qatari royal family bought Harrods for a cool £1.5 billion, it has secured an arguably even more prestigious asset - an overseas campus of a leading British university.
The decision by University College London to launch UCL-Q in Doha was announced last week during a state visit by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar.
The venture, a partnership between UCL, the Qatar Foundation and the Qatar Museums Authority, will focus on archaeology, conservation and museum studies.
Launching next year, it will teach about 150 postgraduate students, and UCL is also planning to relocate four research projects of particular relevance to the Gulf region. UCL will join six US universities at the Education City development in Doha, including Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon, as well as the French business school HEC Paris.
However, Michael Worton, vice-provost (academic and international) at UCL, said its model was "quite different" from the others, as it will not offer undergraduate courses. Instead, it will focus on the postgraduate and research levels, as well as offering executive education, such as professional curatorial qualifications.
"The American universities haven't gone in with a research agenda, whereas we are moving existing research projects for which UCL has the archaeological licences globally. One is on Bronze Age glass in Egypt and Qatar; another on early iron in the Sudan; a third on early humans in the Gulf.
"There's a real symbolic shift because the research findings will be published in world-leading journals and monographs, but they will be published from within the Arab world, rather than from London."
Professor Worton said that because the subject matter was so relevant to the location, the usual difficulties of persuading research staff to move to a branch campus did not apply.
"I can understand why a world-leading engineer or lawyer might not want to go to a place where there is no critical mass of research," he said. "The difference for us is that the research we will be doing is on the region itself. So it's great for the academics involved to be based there but also to be part of UCL, rather than joining a university in the Arab world, most of which don't have serious research."
About a dozen active research staff will be based at UCL-Q, with numbers expected to increase over time.
Another attractive aspect of the venture is that there are no financial risks for UCL as its Qatari partners will provide all the funding.
However, Professor Worton acknowledged that there were other considerations, including reputational risk, adding: "We've had to look at the risks of failure, because UCL doesn't do failure."
He said the university had spent four years working through the details and had satisfied itself that it would be operating in an area "where we are quite sure of the market".
Christopher Davidson, deputy head of the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University, said one issue was that Qatar imposed quotas on foreign branch campuses for the number of local students they had to take. Given the emirate's small population, "it is difficult to believe that UCL will be able to keep the entrance bar as high as it does for its London campus", he said.
Professor Worton disagreed, insisting that no hard quotas had been set and arguing that offering only postgraduate courses meant UCL was "in a much safer position".
"We have been quite clear from the beginning that it's non-negotiable that we will uphold our standards," he said. "Our model for off-shore campuses is to keep them relatively small, research-led and niche, and this means we can ensure that we will attract high-quality students. They won't get in unless they meet our standards."
Dr Davidson said there were also other risks to attaching UCL's brand to a country that "exploits migrant labour across the board, has domestic human-rights problems and is vulnerable to regional conflict, especially given its proximity to Iran".
However, he added that there were also clear advantages, pointing out that staff based in the emirate would be able to access the Qatar Foundation's National Research Fund, "which offers generous funding for research and - I imagine - has a higher success rate than the Economic and Social Research Council et al".
The UCL tie-up was one of several new partnerships unveiled during the Emir's visit, which also included the launch of a "biobank" for research into major diseases to be set up in collaboration with Imperial College London.