DOHA, Qatar — Ahmed Mohamed Al-Hassan hit an educational glass ceiling. He needed a higher-education degree to move up the ladder at Aspire Logistics, the company that manages Doha’s massive sports complex. Although he had graduated from high school a decade before, his grade-point average was too low to enroll at Qatar University.
“There were no options,” said Al-Hassan, 31. “If I wanted to study, I would have to leave my job.”
That changed in September 2010, however, when Qatar partnered with Houston Community College and opened the Community College of Qatar, the country’s first such college. Now, Hassan is the first in his family to go to college, mostly taking night classes as he continues to work full time.
On May 15, less than two years after CCQ opened, 11 students became the country’s inaugural community college graduates. The partnership had a rocky beginning, but leaders of both CCQ and HCC hope the graduation ceremony is the first of many.
The idea to start a community college had been discussed in Qatar since the mid-2000s, said Ibrahim Saleh Alnaimi, acting president of CCQ There has been an increased focus on higher-education standards, and some Qataris found it difficult to get into universities. “Many students had practically no chance to be admitted to Qatar University or, for that matter, Education City,” said Alnaimi, referring to a Doha campus that has branches of elite foreign universities.
But the country had no experience with community colleges. “They had hats, but no cattle, as we say in Texas,” said Mary Spangler, chancellor of HCC, one of the largest community colleges in the United States. After a request for proposals yielded eight options, HCC was chosen as the partner for creating the institution.
HCC was chosen in part because it has been one of the most active community colleges internationally, aiding the accreditation efforts of institutions in Vietnam, Brazil and Saudi Arabia. But no arrangement is as complicated as the one with CCQ, through which HCC provides the faculty and staff to teach their curriculum in Doha.
Unlike Texas A&M University’s Doha campus, which is overseen by a private foundation and is expected to replicate the College Station campus, the CCQ arrangement is overseen by a Qatar government ministry, the Supreme Education Council. Subsequently, policies are more prone to abrupt changes. The institutions signed a five-year, $45 million contract in May 2010. Spangler said the endeavor does not cost the HCC administration any money, as the contract indicates that any expenses are expected to be reimbursed by the education council. Additionally, HCC will receive a 10 percent fee for its services — a projected $4.5 million over five years.
“Instead of giving away our expertise, we’re making money from it. It’s a business enterprise, ” Spangler said.
To date, HCC officials said, they have made $923,414 on the deal.
When the college opened in 2010, it offered associate’s degrees in arts, science and applied science. There were 304 students, all Qataris. The number of students has more than doubled, but the school has yet to take advantage of the country’s substantial expatriate market.
Art Tyler, the HCC deputy chancellor, said opening a college in such a tight time frame would have been impossible in the United States. “I defy anybody to try to do that not only in their own back yard, but do it at arms’ reach,” he said.
Although the college was up and running quickly, it quickly encountered unforeseen challenges.
The Supreme Education Council selects the president and the dean of the college, and its first dean clashed with the HCC administration. Spangler said there was “a tug of war over every single shred of information” and ultimately those differences caused CCQ to go off track on its efforts to become — as HCC already is — accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, whose seal of approval is often considered a critical quality control for transferring credits.
“If we had started off and kept along the path that the contract identified for accreditation, we would be two years along that path,” Spangler said. “For whatever reason, that’s not what happened.”
This alarmed students who thought that they would be graduating with degrees from HCC, which ultimately was not the case; their degrees are from CCQ.
“I think a lot of students feel that if they have the HCC degree, it will open many doors and they will get into many universities,” Alnaimi said, “where now they are struggling to get into one or two universities.
Gigi Do, the executive director in HCC’s office of international initiatives, said the decision to continue pursuing accreditation rests with the administration at CCQ Last fall, Butch Herod, who previously served as dean of HCC’s Northwest College in Houston, was brought in to take over as acting dean in Qatar. Administrators said the partnership got back on track as he began addressing concerns.
“I found a college that was beginning its second year of operation, and that says it all,” Herod said.
Class of 2012 graduates now have the option of converting their CCQ degrees into HCC degrees by taking extra courses online in the summer. Alone, CCQ degrees can help get a student into a university, but credit transfers are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.
In January, CCQ signed an agreement with Qatar University to ease the transfer of credits, and it is in communication about similar arrangements with Education City institutions.
Four of CCQ’s 11 recent graduates intend to continue their education at universities in Qatar in the fall. One plans to enroll at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
Herod said that success in Qatar requires three things: “You need to be flexible, patient and curious.” He said faculty members in the United States should be prepared for cultural differences prior to arriving. Some have balked, for example, at Qatar’s requirements that they get exit visa requirements before taking any trips outside the country.
The Supreme Education Council recently issued a directive to the country’s education institutions to teach more classes in Arabic. Some students and faculty fear the decision will make graduates less marketable. Herod said the school — which has taught entirely in English — would seek more bilingual instructors and posited that it could make learning easier for CCQ students.
CCQ’s initial plan to offer coed classes also experienced an unexpected about-face. Men and women take classes in different parts of town, with instructors shuttling back and forth.
This division prompted some in Houston, including an HCC trustee, Carroll Robinson, to question whether Title IX, the United States federal law that prohibits gender-based discrimination, is being violated. Robinson called for the contract with CCQ to be terminated, charging that it was rushed without being properly vetted and has tied up millions in taxpayer funds.
“Until HCC has assisted in increasing our local high school graduation rates as well as college attendance and student success rates, international involvement outside of the country beyond student recruitment is a secondary priority for me,” he said in a statement.
Spangler disputed the allegations regarding taxpayer money and said her attorneys advise her that Title IX was not intended to apply outside the United States.
Hassan, who is now a student government vice president at CCQ, said the decision made it possible for more Qatari students to attend. “I think they want the college to continue as it is,” Hassan said. “When they had the boys and girls in one building, many students, especially the girls, didn’t want to continue.”
At the end of the five-year agreement, both HCC and CCQ plan to evaluate the relationship before making any further commitment.
On the eve of the graduation ceremony in Doha, Spangler said she would go through all the start-up struggles again.
“I’ve never been intimidated or bothered by people who tell me I shouldn’t be doing certain things,” she said. “Especially when I believe we have the assets, the positioning and the responsibility that can make a difference in many more people’s lives.”
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