A previous version of this story, published on 2/28, contained information that had not been sufficiently verified, and misrepresented some of the effects of the Qatar Foundation's recent budget cuts on NU-Q. The story was removed on 3/1 and information was verified before this updated version was published.
Sitting 7,000 miles from Evanston, a glimmering metropolis emerges from the border between sea and sky. Showcasing the finest architecture and city planning modern technology has to offer, glass skyscrapers tower above freshly paved roadways. This is Doha, the political, economic, cultural and population center of Qatar, a peninsular nation slightly smaller than Connecticut in the heart of the Middle East. Buoyed by $116.6 billion in annual petroleum revenue (from both oil and natural gas), Qatar’s authoritarian government funds expensive construction projects and welcomes foreign investments – like Northwestern University in Qatar (NU-Q), one of six American universities with second homes here. The problem is, these hydrocarbon fuels aren’t a guaranteed stream of revenue, especially in recent years, meaning the foundation that funds Northwestern’s venture has been forced to face some budget cuts in recent years.
In 2008, Northwestern joined Education City (EC), a 2,500 acre complex on the outskirts of the city hosting five other American universities, filled with state-of-the-art buildings and perfectly manicured landscaping. Today, NU-Q hosts students from around the world and awards bachelor’s degrees in journalism and communications, with 178 graduates since its opening.
The Qatar Foundation (QF), a non-profit organization overseen by the Qatari government that focuses on education, research and development, fully subsidizes Northwestern’s satellite campus in the country, funding NU-Q beyond what they would receive from students’ tuition. (By contrast, Northwestern in the United States is funded largely by the University’s $9.65 billion endowment, a pool of donations that are invested to ensure they increase in value). Budget cuts to the foundation, however, are causing NU-Q students to have to adapt to some changes.
Qatar’s national revenues were expected to drop more than 31 percent in fiscal year 2016 due to diminished oil prices. Despite a slight rebound recently, the nation’s budget is still expected to decline by 2 percent this year. Even after a 7.28 percent decrease in government spending last year, there was still a deficit (the first in 15 years) of approximately $12.56 billion, and this year has a projected $7.8 billion deficit in store – combine the two, and you get an amount more than 470 times greater than the $43 million it takes to run NU-Q yearly. The Qatari government’s cuts in funding to the Qatar Foundation first started taking effect two to three years ago, students say, and could lead to cuts in programming at Education City for years to come, causing changes for current and incoming students.
These facts may make the outlook of NU-Q seem dim, but a set 10-year contract between the Foundation and the University means the University’s budget hasn’t changed at all, and is guaranteed until the 2027-28 school year.
“To date, we have not been affected negatively by any financial changes that might have taken place in the Qatar Foundation,” Barry Sexton, director of business and finance at NU-Q, said via email, referring to the budget of NU-Q.
Where the budget cuts to the Foundation have come into play in students’ lives, however, has been in Education City-wide programs and events, as well as budget essentials that have been cut from QF’s budget, including student employment and financial aid.
“[The decreased budget] plays a big role in day-to-day activities,” said Fouad Hassan, a junior communications student at NU-Q, referring to QF-controlled organizations. “Especially when you see a lot of money being spent on [things] no one needs.”
The Qatar Foundation has trimmed programs in order to streamline its budget, including the Qatari version of work-study, meaning NU-Q is now picking up the slack for its students in these areas.
“After the budget cuts, the Qatar Foundation reduced the number of jobs that they supported, so what most of the universities [in Education City] did is started paying for the jobs from their own budget,” said Shakeeb Asrar, a senior journalism student at NU-Q whose wage is now funded by the University. “One thing that I really liked about NU-Q was that they really took things into their own hands to make sure students were not directly affected by budget cuts.”
Other program cuts include the EBDA (Arabic for “start”) leadership development initiative, which sponsored a number of Education City-wide programs that sent students at Education City universities, including NU-Q, on leadership-based trips to improve team-building and leadership skills. The Qatar Foundation eliminated the program completely for students at the six undergraduate universities.
“One of the biggest funders we had for EBDA programs was Maersk Oil, so when [oil prices dropped], they could not afford to fund us anymore, so they cut their support,” NU-Q communications junior Huda Barakat said. “They were able to manage a smaller budget, and as a result they had to cancel some of the programs or modify them.”
Some students who entered NU-Q as the budget cuts were taking effect worry about the future of the city and the opportunities for employment.
“The direction that the country’s going, they call it the ‘Qatarization’ policy where they’re trying to have more nationals working, so they replace the expats,” Barakat said. “It is very difficult to get a decent job, or a job in general. It’s just a challenge.”
The instability and uncertainty in the job market for emerging students plays into Qatar’s unique student loan system, which gives students the opportunity to work in Qatar for a set number of years (the number depends on where they work) at a QF-approved company in exchange for their loans to be waived.
“After the budget cuts, especially since the oil prices went down, the job market has been really small here, so a lot of people were struggling with it,” Asrar said. “That bothers me because I’ll be graduating this summer and looking for a job and now I’m hearing there won’t be as many opportunities as there were two years ago.”
In the face of these cuts, however, many students maintain their optimism, seeing these budget cuts as a minor drawback to an otherwise great university.
“That’s what happens with a lot of events or programs, the students just got used to a certain level of luxuries, and when [QF] takes them away they get very disappointed,” Barakat said.
NU-Q’s contract with QF, in addition to locking in yearly funding for the University, includes a management fee, which compensates the university for day-to-day operations including library maintenance, budgeting and IT services - activities that Northwestern employees on the Evanston campus must take care of themselves.
Richard Roth, who served as NU-Q’s senior associate dean from the school’s opening in 2008 until 2014, explained that cuts cause more problems on the Qatar campus than they ever would here in America. “If they get less money … they would feel that impact in Doha, but probably not here [in Evanston],” Roth said, citing the unchanging management fee.
This means budget cuts are causing NU-Q to reallocate its own funds to things like financial aid that can no longer be funded through the Qatar Foundation.
“While changes in the distribution of financial aid may have been meaningful to the students affected, in the context of our budget, it had no impact on the students,” said Sexton.
The outlook for the city of Doha is uncertain, and the future is sure to hold challenges for students and administrators navigating the ever-changing economic landscape surrounding them the oil-dependent region, whether these challenges come in the form of cut student programs, changes to daily life, limited employment opportunities or other potential obstacles.
“The main problem is that there is no balance of funds,” Hassan said, referencing his beliefs that the Foundation is cutting some essentials while continuing to spend extravagantly in other areas. “I don’t feel like [QF] needs to tell us what the budget is, they just need to stop spending the money in the wrong places.”