No dilution of degrees

American universities operating in Qatar accept students with lower entrance scores than those enrolling in the US, but school officials insist graduates will meet the same standards.

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US-based universities with branches at Qatar's Education City have insisted that they are not diluting the quality of their degrees, even though students admitted on average have lower examinations scores at some institutions. Representatives at the government-funded project say while mean SAT (scholastic assessment test) results of incoming students may be poorer, standards for the awarding of degrees are not being compromised.

Education City has six branch campuses of American universities, including Georgetown, Carnegie Mellon and Weill Cornell Medical College. The National was sent anonymously what was said to be the mean verbal and mathematics SAT scores of business and computer science students joining the Qatar and Pittsburgh campuses of Carnegie Mellon. The figures, which the university said it could not "confirm the veracity of", indicated significantly lower scores for Qatar students. A university spokeswoman said SAT scores were confidential and declined to provide statistics.

However, she confirmed average SAT scores of entering students in Qatar were lower than those in Pittsburgh. The SAT is a standardised test run by the College Board for United States university admissions. There are three parts, critical reading, writing and mathematics, each scored between 200 and 800. "Both campuses use a wide range of inputs in admission decisions, including high school activities, SATs, TOELFs [test of English as a foreign language] and other competency tests," the Carnegie Mellon spokeswoman said in a statement.

"In Qatar and in Pittsburgh, only those students judged to be fully capable of meeting the high standards of the university are offered admission." She said curriculum and grading standards were "fully equal in rigour" at the two campuses, adding that the most recent graduating class in Qatar included students who took top honours. Across the Gulf, foreign universities have opened branch campuses, encouraged by governments keen to replicate western educational standards. In some cases institutions fund themselves through tuition revenues, but in the case of Education City the costs are covered by the government-funded Qatar Foundation.

A key attraction of branch campuses is that they offer degrees said to be equivalent to those awarded by the parent institution. Often certificates do not specify where the student was based. John Margolis, the dean and chief executive officer of Northwestern University in Qatar, which opened last year, "declined to characterise" the SAT scores of incoming students. He said "some of our students do face various challenges" as academic expectations for many were "far higher" then they experienced earlier in their education.

However, he added: "I do not accept that entry standards are radically different [in Qatar compared with Illinois]. "What we're most concerned with is our output. All the students will meet the high standards expected of recipients of undergraduate degrees in Northwestern University. "The fact that some, and I want to stress some, students may travel slightly further to reach that during their four years seems to me a tribute to the hard work and dedication of these students and the supportive educational environment that our faculty and staff try to create here in Doha."

SAT scores of incoming students at Georgetown University School of Foreign Service in Qatar are lower than those in Washington, DC, said the dean in Qatar, James Reardon-Anderson, although he said statistics were not available. He "wouldn't be here" if he did not think that overall academic standards were being maintained. Students in the US have more experience of standardised tests so are expected to score more highly on them, he said.

"If we weren't satisfied we had students of comparable talent, it wouldn't work," he said. Student and faculty exchanges indicated that standards in Qatar were as high as those in Washington, he added. "All indicators are that we're operating at standards that justify the Georgetown degree," he said. Mark Weichold, the dean and chief executive of Texas A&M University at Qatar, which runs engineering courses, said the Education City campus had the minimum mathematics SAT score of 550 as specified for engineering students enrolling in the United States. The minimum is in place because engineering students are expected to have strong mathematics skills.

The average mathematics SAT score for students joining at Qatar last year, all taking engineering courses, was 611, compared with an average for Texas A&M in the United States, spread across all subjects, of 616. "We're obligated to maintain the same standards for admission as we have in [Texas]," Dr Weichold said, adding that the Qatar campus received about 1,400 applications for 100 places. Robert Baxter, a spokesman for the Qatar Foundation, insisted the branch campuses provided "programmes of the same standard" as the home institutions, just in a different setting.

Education City is a project of the Qatar Foundation, whose founder was Qatar's emir, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani. The foundation's current chair is the emir's wife, Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Al-Missned. Each of the universities that make up Education City has a contract with the foundation. In the past, both foundation and university representatives have insisted that maintaining the same admission and academic standards between the home campuses in the US and their branch campuses in Qatar was essential to the credibility of the project.

The universities did not want to cheapen the quality of the degrees they awarded and the foundation was keen not to settle for anything less than world-class educational programmes, they said. "We're operating in a different environment to the United States," Mr Baxter said. "You cannot look for absolute parity in achievement of the students in their careers so far. You look for their potential to succeed."

Teaching standards at Education City may be better than in the United States, he said, as student to staff ratios tended to be lower.