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Qatar embarked on an ambitious education reform programme in 2002-03 and began converting government schools into Independent Schools under ‘Education for a New Era’ slogan
The idea was to overhaul the school education system and make it such that it would be able to equip students—mainly nationals—to easily pursue higher education.
This, because Qatar’s long-term goal is to move from a carbon-based to a knowledge-based economy. The education system, therefore, must be able to prepare the present and coming generations of Qataris to take charge.
Roughly a decade has elapsed since the reforms were introduced, but sadly, school education in the country remains to make the necessary leap to the New Era.
Many students passing out of Independent Schools, that impart education in Arabic, find it hard to qualify entrance tests for various degree courses in American university campuses in the Education City or at Qatar University.
As a result, they must attend an Academic Bridge Program of a year’s duration run by Qatar Foundation to be able to successfully attempt an entrance test.
And those wishing to pursue a degree course at Qatar University must attend a Foundation Program, also of a year’s duration, to pass the entrance test.
The focus of both the above programs is to improve English language skills and the knowledge of science and mathematics of Qatari students, especially to enable them to write entrance tests successfully for degree courses in science streams.
A number of them, however, fail to make it despite having attended the above ‘preparatory’ courses. Some of them, however, manage to seek admissions to colleges and universities overseas, in the US, in particular.
Qatar University has recently done away with foundation programs for degree courses in streams such as law, Shariah, arts, business and economics and education, arguing that since these subjects will be taught in Arabic, students could be admitted directly.
However, students applying for admission to other undergraduate streams at Qatar University are required to attend the foundation program.
Qatar University has been sending confusing signals of late as its focus not too long ago was on English, but recently it has shifted its accent back on Arabic.
In another development, the university has said it does not require students to have minimum scores in IELTS or TOEFL proficiency tests and a passing score of 70 percent in the foundation program could allow a student to be admitted to a degree course.
IELTS stands for International English language Testing System, while the popular TOFEL stands for Test of English as a Foreign Language.
Unlike Qatar University, the universities in the Education City are quite clear about what they require of a student seeking admission to their undergraduate courses.
First of all, all the courses at these universities are taught in English, so a student aspiring to get admitted to one of these institutions is required to have a very high level of proficiency in the English language.
There are no minimum TOEFL or IELTS score requirements for admission to these universities, but students must obtain fairly high marks in these tests.
Besides, universities such as Weill Cornell Medical College-Qatar, Texas A & M-Qatar and Carnegie-Mellon-Qatar require high scores in SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) or ACT (American College Test) tests for admission.
The problem with Qatari students passing out of Independent Schools is that they are taught mathematics and science subjects in Arabic, so they are not familiar with terminologies in English, and many of them struggle with such terminologies even after attending academic bridge or foundation programmes.
The pass percentages of these two preparatory, pre-university entrance courses have lately improved a bit, but the figures are not up to the mark, educationists rue.
The saving grace, though, is that after a student has attended either of the above two courses and has failed to qualify entrance tests locally, he or she is at least able to get admission to some college overseas, mainly in the US, after taking tests like TOEFL, IELTS, SAT or ACT and obtaining minimum scores.
Critics argue that after Qatar embarked on educational reforms in 2002-03, its school system should have been able to equip the Qatari student to pursue higher education, which is modern, in a rather easy way.
This is not to suggest that Arabic should not have been accorded importance by these schools but the curriculum should have been developed in such a way that students were proficient in English as well and could be able to easily grasp subjects taught in that language in degree courses.
The problem with the so-called new school education in Qatar, according to critics, is that while structural changes were made rather rapidly, schools ignored a key area — teachers’ training.
Little or no emphasis was put on training teachers in these schools and orienting them towards the new education system. The result was that the so-called reforms failed to bear the desired fruit.
Critics say the schools should have been such that there was no need for students to attend academic bridge or foundation programmes to seek admission to undergraduate courses in universities.
Critics describe the issue as serious and argue that since Qatar is aiming for a knowledge-based economy over the long-term, drastically reducing its dependence on hydrocarbon income, it is education that holds the key to its future as it alone can prepare the present and future generations of Qataris to take charge.
But considering what has been happening on the early education front in the country, Qatar might not be able to have a knowledge-based economy within the targeted timeframe unless drastic steps are taken to make the educational reform actually work, say critics.