For some Qatar University students who finished courses at the end of June, a big change awaits when they return for the next semester: they will no longer be taught in English.
Qatar’s Supreme Education Council issued a decree this year that “Arabic should be the official teaching language at Qatar University” and “accordingly, the university should take all necessary procedures for that end”.
The change comes as Qatar, like its Gulf neighbours, works to reconcile two opposing aims emanating from its society and rulers: to preserve the country’s culture amid a flood of expatriate residents while preparing Qataris to compete in the global economy.
The move was highly controversial at Qatar University, the country’s largest, where before the decree, new students were placed in a foundation programme to learn crucial skills such as English and mathematics. Following the decree, students can bypass the programme and be directly admitted in Arabic-language courses.
Qatar University has examined the language of instruction before. In 2004, its law department looked at what the job market would require from its graduates as well as available legal course material.
“The Qatari economy was booming. Job contracts and negotiations required people who understood Qatari law but spoke English,” says Hassan al-Sayed, a prominent Qatari legal expert who teaches at the university. When he looked at available course material, the majority was in English. “So it did not make sense to teach in Arabic.”
But when it came to Qatari constitutional, civil and criminal law, the university opted to continue teaching in Arabic because there were sufficient resources to do so, and because it matched the needs of the job market, Mr Sayed says. Before the decree, about 40 per cent of the law courses, excluding Islamic law, were taught in English.
Courses that will make the switch to Arabic when classes resume include business and economics as well as media and international affairs. The faculty of law has begun the transition. In some subjects such as engineering and science, where English is the de-facto global language, tuition will not change.
The education decree was seen by some as an affirmation of Qatari culture, but others have concerns that it will impair graduates’ abilities to navigate successfully the job market. The Supreme Education Council did not say why the measure was being pushed through, and it did not answer queries for this article.
Qatar University says the institution “has always been a leader in promoting Arabic language as the cornerstone of preserving our culture and heritage”, but English continues to be a requirement for graduation. “Our commitment has always been, and will continue to be, to quality education. This is not contingent on the language of instruction.”
The increase of English as the de facto language of business in Qatar at the expense of Arabic is a cause of concern in the country, where young people often struggle to gain full literacy in written Arabic, according to government figures.
“English is the business language today in the world. Anywhere in the world, whenever you want to conduct business it is going to be in English,” says Sheikh Nasser bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, the chairman of NBA Holdings, a diversified group that runs an executive recruitment service among other businesses.
When Sheikh Nasser is hiring business professionals, he wants them to speak English. But, he says: “English is the second language here in Qatar. It is not the first language. Holding on to the heritage and holding on to the mother language is very important.” For professions related to law or to the arts and culture, someone who does not speak English would still be considered for appropriate positions, Mr Thani says.
Despite the government spending almost $18,000 a year per student, “higher education still falls short of its goals”, according to the Qatar National Development Strategy report, which says Qatari graduates are often not prepared to participate in the workforce.
A similar challenge exists across the Gulf. In its latest Global Competitiveness Report, the World Economic Forum listed an inadequately educated workforce as the third-largest obstacle to doing business in Qatar; and named education among the top four obstacles for all Gulf Co-operation Council states other than Kuwait.
In the United Arab Emirates, where like Qatar citizens are outnumbered by an expatriate majority, the government has also taken steps to encourage a stronger focus on Arabic in higher education. In April Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the UAE prime minister, announced several initiatives to promote Arabic, including a project to encourage its use in science and technology research.
“Our national identity is integrally linked to the Arabic language,” Sheikh Mohammed said in launching the plan. “Promoting the language will enable our future generations to connect with our roots, society and values more effectively.”
Abdulaziz Almalki, a 26-year-old Qatari student, struggled when he first studied engineering at Northwestern University in Education City. At the time, he was far from fluent in English. But Mr Almalki says he knew if he wanted to succeed at his job, working for Dolphin Energy, a gas company, that he must master the foreign tongue.
“At work, everything is in English,” he says. “The moment we walk into work, everyone speaks it – the Filipinos, the Indians and me.”