DUBAI -- Leaving the desert behind, a driver to Education City in Doha, the Qatari capital, has the impression of entering another world. It still has the look of the modern Gulf: Huge, shiny buildings sit side by side, and Range Rovers and Audis fill student parking lots. Inside, however, the common areas and cafes look like they could be on any U.S. campus.
Young men and women cluster to talk over a presentation in one corner, while techies crowd around a computer in another.
The difference is that many of the students are Qataris, with women wearing traditional black abayas and men in white kandouras. The Gulf dialect echoes in the corridors. Qatari students, the majority of whom are attending a mixed-gender school environment for the first time, make up about a third of the student body.
The complex, which houses the local campuses of eight Western universities, is spread over 14 square kilometers, or 5.4 square miles. Founded in 2001 by a government rich with oil and natural gas money, it was meant to bring big-name Western education to the Gulf.
But some analysts say the universities, locally financed but serving student bodies that are still dominated by foreigners, seem like bubbles cut off from Gulf culture and society.
"I'm so happy to see huge investments in education in this way, but these universities are not organically linked to the cultural or social themes of their immediate environments, and have a responsibility to do so," said Khaled Fahmy, a professor and chair of the history department at the American University of Cairo, which is not related to Education City.
"The idea of being cosmopolitan is romanticized, and if not enough attention is given to incorporating local context in an embedded, serious way rather than as an afterthought, the repercussions will be serious," he said. "It will create generations of Emiratis or Qataris who are very well educated but are disconnected from their country's history, culture and language."
The lineup of partner U.S. schools with Qatari branches or campuses is impressive: Georgetown, Northwestern, Virginia Commonwealth University, the Weill Cornell Medical College, Texas A&M and Carnegie Mellon.
University College London welcomed its first cohort in Qatar last September, as did the École des Hautes Études Commerciales de Paris, or HEC.
Abu Dhabi, in the neighboring United Arab Emirates, has also attracted some of the world's top schools, including the Sorbonne in Paris, the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania and Insead, a business school based in France.
But these institutions realize that simply importing a Western education system is not enough: They have to ensure that Qatari and Emirati students fit in culturally and academically.
One problem is that many local high school students are not qualified to immediately enter elite institutions like Northwestern or Georgetown, highly competitive schools that typically admit less than one in five applicants in the United States. There are no formal quotas on the number of local students admitted to the Gulf campuses.
To bridge the gap, overseas campuses have resorted to using conditional admissions, bridge programs or foundation years to help local students catch up. In some cases, these extra courses are taught by professors from home campuses who are visiting the Middle East for the first time.
For the most part, construction of the Gulf campuses of these Western universities was fully paid for by the Qatari or Emirati governments. Local citizens generally attend on full government scholarships, regardless of financial need. Foreign students pay tuition costs similar to the corresponding U.S. schools and can apply for local scholarships and grants.
"We do realize that the whole operation in Education City is funded by Qatar, so we want to maintain our standards without dropping to a low percentage of Qataris or having no link to society," said Gerd Nonneman, dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service in Qatar.
Local citizens make up about a third of the student body at the Gulf campuses of Georgetown and the Sorbonne.
That is not the case at N.Y.U. Abu Dhabi, where more than 4,000 students have applied for the academic year starting in 2014, of which only 150 will be admitted. Of those, the largest group will be Americans. The campus expects to admit six Emirati students next year, followed by nine in 2015 and 17 in 2016.
For Emirati students who show promise but require additional schooling, conditional admission will be granted through a bridge program, taught on campus by N.Y.U. professors and paid for by the U.A.E. government.
"Generally, to lend their brand name, these universities insist on keeping the student recruitment standards high and may open a foundation or bridge program for nationals who don't meet requirements, without quotas," said Leila Hoteit, a research analyst at Booz & Co. who specializes in human capital, education and culture.
"These bridge programs are not a long-term solution, and many universities have noted that even an effective full-year program will not be able to address fully the gaps left by below-par K-12 education."
"All over the world, you have people coming to international universities with diverse cultural backgrounds," said Éric Fouache, vice chancellor of Sorbonne Abu Dhabi.
"This is a nice way to group together good students who lack some basics because they come from different programs to do the same degree."
All the universities at Education City in Doha use the same outside provider for additional coursework: the Academic Bridge Program, founded by the Qatar Foundation, the same organization that finances Education City. It teaches math, science and English as well as critical thinking and problem solving.
Of Northwestern University's 160 students in Doha, about 45 percent are Qatari citizens, many of whom completed that bridge program after high school.
"By far our focus is serving the Qatari community, and each year the number of Qatari students attending universities in Education City is increasing," said Mark Newmark, assistant director of academic affairs at the Academic Bridge Program. "It's a great way to fill in gaps, and for many Qataris it's the first taste of a mixed-gender school environment."
"I like the Academic Bridge Program because it doesn't cut people off at a test -- a student is not forever denied the opportunity to get a good education and develop," said Everette Dennis, dean of Northwestern University Doha. "It's a wake-up call for students who thought they did well in high school but didn't perform well on standardized tests -- and usually, students in academic bridge programs are motivated and want to go to the next step."
One question at branch campuses all over the world -- from the Middle East to Asia -- is whether far-smaller, distant outposts can provide the same experience as home campuses. In most cases, the schools stay true to the core curricula used at the main university, and grant the same degrees.
"There are opportunities here that don't exist in the main campus -- be it an elective course or an activity or research project," Mr. Nonneman said.
"We are invited to Qatar not to compromise on standards," he added. "And our valedictorian two years ago was a Qatari student."
"This is a golden opportunity to think of the tremendous benefits of adapting core curriculums to local environments," Mr. Fahmy said. "If these institutions engage seriously in making less euro-centric programs and incorporating Indian philosophy, Islamic science, Arabic literature and Chinese art, we'll have diversity and original research at a level that truly raises global standards."
Sorbonne Abu Dhabi has introduced courses in museum studies and art history to prepare graduates for jobs at two museum projects. While both have been beset by delays, the local branch of the Louvre is now expected to open in 2015, and the Guggenheim in 2017.
"We're not trying to just plant American institutions in the Middle East and simply adapt what we already have," Mr. Dennis said. "We have to make sure faculty and students are involved in the local culture and society's needs here, through specific classes and internships. Otherwise it just won't work."world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.