DOHA—Optimism filled the air as prospective students and their parents gathered at an education fair last fall to learn about some of the nation’s best universities.
That enthusiasm, however, quickly turned to distress for some like Um Hussein, a Lebanese expatriate whose sons just graduated from universities in Malaysia. Seeking to send her daughter, Nour, to a university in Qatar, much closer to home, she inquired about the costs, which shocked her.
“With the graduation of my two elder sons, we finally breathed a sigh of relief,” said Um Hussein, who attended the education event with Nour. “Today, we have to start all over again to provide for Nour’s education.”
Um Hussein’s situation is not unique. In Qatar, higher education is a financial burden for many expatriates who live there. They often take loans to cover educational expenses that they have great difficulty paying back. Other prospective students are driven out of the country to seek degrees elsewhere.
Qatari nationals can attend Qatar University, the nation’s only public university, for free. Expatriates living in the country, many of them from other Arab countries or from South Asian families that have lived in Qatar for generations, have to either pay to attend the university or pay steep fees to go to private ones concentrated in a compound called Education City.
The compound consists of six American universities, a British university and a French one and may offer worthwhile options for some students. But it also makes Qatar the most expensive country in the Arab world for private higher education. Tuition and fees for the academic year 2014-2015 in some education city campuses can be more than $50,000 annually.
That price tag affects expat student enrollment: While expatriates outnumber Qataris at all levels of school, they only accounted for 39 percent of total graduates in higher education institutions in 2011.
“Ask any family with post-secondary students and they will tell you just how over-priced the costs of college education are in Qatar,” said Ibrahim Al Deek, a Palestinian expat who works more than one job to cover higher-education expenses for his three children.
Education City offers several financial aid options to students. However, students have had mixed experiences with the financial aid application process.
Fatima Al-Zahra studied for a year at Northwestern University in Qatar before she dropped out during her sophomore year because she didn’t have a scholarship and financial aid after her mother lost her job.
“I was never on financial aid because I never knew such system existed,” Al-Zahra said. “I remember asking about it, but didn’t get enough help or information.”
A spokesperson at another institution located in Education City, Hamad Bin Khalifa University, said students must meet straightforward criteria to be eligible for financial aid. That includes proving they are accepted for an undergraduate program at one of the institution’s partner branch campuses and providing evidence that they are full-time students. They also need to demonstrate that they have a financial need and provide details of someone who will pay their debt if they fail to.
Some students say the application processes are lengthy and complicated.
“Applying for financial aid was never easy,” said Mohammed Noor, a graduate of Northwestern University in Qatar. “It was hectic and required a lot of documentation.”
Others, however, said Education City’s financial aid system was helpful, that the process of applying is easier than elsewhere around the world and that students don’t pay interest on loans, because of the Islamic prohibition against the charging of interest.
“They definitely need to be more professional and need an overhaul, but at the end of the day they do end up helping the majority of students in need,” said Ahmed Rauf, a Texas A&M Qatar student.
Some, however, have trouble paying back loans, particularly since it can be difficult for expats in Qatar to find jobs when they graduate. One reason for this is a national strategy known as Qatarization that prioritizes employment for the growing number of Qataris, limiting work opportunities for expats. This situation is similar to that in many other Gulf countries that are trying to reduce their dependence on labor classified as foreign. Citizenship is a closely guarded status and is difficult to get.
Other expats just aren’t earning enough to make loan payments. Noor, the recent graduate of Northwestern University in Qatar, said he feels pressure to change jobs—from one in the media industry to a better-paid government job that could cover a loan he took to pay for his education.
While his parents were relieved he got the loan, which covered more than $137,000 in university tuition and fees, “the burden now is on me to pay it back,” Noor said.
With the challenges—and price tag of education—in mind, many expat students from middle-income families go back to their home countries to attend university. Others seek out the public alternative to private education in Qatar, Qatar University. As the country’s only state-run university, it costs much less than private options—about $6,600 annually. But priority in admission is given to Qataris, who comprise about 70 percent of the study body, according to Darwish Al-Emadi, director of the Social and Economic Survey Research Institute at Qatar University.
Al-Emadi said Qatar is built on the diverse experiences of all its residents, whether nationals or expatriates. “We appreciate the efforts of all expats working in building this country, regardless of their nationalities and backgrounds,” he said.
Yet, the high costs of higher education limit the flow of expats into the local job market, where they could ultimately play an effective role in further developing the nation.