First annual WISE education summit brings 1,000 to Qatar

Canadians among those invited to contribute to international education conference

Some 1,000 delegates from universities, government and the private sector in 120 countries gathered last week in Doha, Qatar for the first annual World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE). The conference, funded and organized by the oil-rich Qatar Foundation, hosted speakers who addressed pluralism, sustainability and innovation in education. However, it may take another WISE event to determine what concrete actions, if any, will come out of the massive undertaking.

Much discussion was focused on how to improve access to education for children and youth in conflict zones or impoverished parts of the world while also ensuring education is of high quality. Many speakers promoted the idea that education is an essential part of establishing peace in war-torn regions. Sessions also centred on issues as varied as how Twitter can be used in the classroom to how the Malaysian education system reaches out to minorities.

However, with such a broad focus discussed among delegates from such diverse backgrounds, it’s difficult to guess what consequence will come of WISE. In the final session, Dr. Abdulla bin Ali Al-Thani, chairperson of WISE, described a 10-point agenda that had come from the discussions:

1.         Access to ‘quality’ education

2.         A fully integrated approach

3.         Global citizenship

4.         Education embedded in the local community

5.         Protecting education and educators

6.         Reconciliation

7.         ‘WISE pioneers’ to monitor progress

8.         Innovating new ways to learn

9.         Pursuing sustainable development

10.      A future built on multi-stakeholder partnership

(How these points will be implemented remains to be seen.)

Canada was represented by a delegation of 19 participants, from universities including Dalhousie and McGill to groups such as the Fraser Institute, the B.C. College of Teachers, and even including Petro Canada. Notable delegates included David Strangway, former president of the University of British Columbia who represented the China-Canada Commission on the Environment and Economic Sustainability, and Norman Riddell of the near-defunct Millennium Scholarship Foundation.

WISE seems to be the next step in Qatar’s campaign to become a global centre for education. It builds on its ambitious Education City, where top American universities such as Carnegie Mellon, Northwestern and Cornell have established foreign campuses, offering the same curriculum to Arab students as is delivered back on American soil. The schools are fully paid for by the Qatar Foundation and the universities are paid a financial incentive in a “management fee” to set up shop.

Visiting Education City is like stepping inside a surreal education utopia. Brand-new immaculate buildings dot an otherwise barren landscape of dry dusty desert. Entering the new Carnegie Mellon building—which appears to have been built without any thought to expense—one is struck by the expansive walkway of gleaming marble and three-story high ceiling. But what makes the impressive building eerie is the lack of those for whom it was built—the students. A building its size at any Canadian university would surely be bustling with hundreds of students in its halls, yet Carnegie Mellon is currently only educating a couple of hundred students in Doha.

Nevertheless, the intention behind Education City seems to be valuable. Qatar, being wholly dependant on fossil fuels for its affluence, hopes to diversify its economy by building an educated workforce that is prepared for the knowledge economy. And like its in architecture and conferences, Qatar didn’t cut corners. The Foundation has sought out what it determines to be the best programs in the world to join Education City, and it insists the universities offer the same courses and programs and that the same tuition be charges as would for an international student back at the home campus. The aim is to avoid the programs becoming cheap, second-rate alternatives to studying in the United States.

The University of Calgary and the College of the North Atlantic have also set up overseas campuses in Qatar. In its second year, UofC is offering the only bachelor’s of nursing available in the country. While the schools are receiving some financial benefit for their Doha operations, faculty and administrators seem to be there for more altruistic reasons—they hope to improve health care in the region. “With our universities and healthcare system, we’re so lucky,” said dean Sheila Evans, “We all feel like we can give back here.”