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The respiratory lab at the Qatar campus of the College of the North Atlantic.


The "patients" − two men and a baby − are laid out on hospital beds in the spacious lab. They moan, cry and sweat, almost as though they were real people. But these lifelike machines, with exteriors that feel like real skin, aren't human: they're $150,000 simulators designed to train students in respiratory health.

A handful of students sit around a table talking with a professor, while public relations specialist Diane Martin quietly, with only a hint of Newfoundland in her voice, points out the newest acquisitions of the lab. The scene in this cutting-edge education lab at the College of the North Atlantic could easily be found in St. John's where the college was founded, but the students in full black hijabs and the palm trees that frame the school's entrance suggest otherwise. This brand new campus is in Qatar, a tiny country on the Persian Gulf.

Canada's universities are well-known for focusing on internationalization, particularly during the past decade, but increasingly colleges are also looking beyond our borders to deliver programs, recruit students and seek out global experiences for their domestic students. In fact, with 2,000 students, 10-year-old College of the North Atlantic Qatar (CNA-Q) is the largest Canadian higher-education campus outside Canada.

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CNA-Q was originally contracted by Qatar to offer education for workers in its oil and gas industry, but that mandate has significantly expanded to provide training in subjects as disparate as health sciences, English language, business and even creative writing. CNA-Q's expansion is part of the push in Qatar, under the reform-minded emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, to revolutionize its post-secondary education system. This is in order to create an educated populace to bring in new economic development and diversify its now primarily natural-gas economy.

CNA-Q's expansion is an anomaly among colleges, however. While university administrators often go abroad to build their global profiles, compete with other leading universities to offer high-level degrees in emerging economies, and attract the world's best students and faculty, most college administrators describe a more modest motivation for internationalizing: They want to improve the quality of education they provide to domestic students by offering global perspectives. In 2010, the Ontario government pledged to increase the number of international students at its colleges and universities by 50 per cent in five years, which has put pressure on colleges to grow their presence abroad.

"We started by asking, 'How can we create a better graduate?'" says Sean Coote, director international of Niagara College, "and we realized we needed graduates who were prepared for a global world, regardless of whether they would be employed in Toronto or Katmandu." For Niagara College, that meant recruiting students from all over the world who could offer that international perspective that is difficult to teach in a classroom. Of the college's 9,000 students, 1,000 come from more than 75 different countries.

College administrators acknowledge that revenue from international students is also an incentive for post-secondary institutions to internationalize, especially in times of squeezed government funding. "There is a financial element, of course," says John Donald, vice-president of community and business development at Georgian College. "International tuition is a revenue source that's important. But that's not why we're doing this."

"We're principally motivated by our students' experiences, both domestic and international, making sure they have relevant experience to be employed and bringing multicultural capacity to them," Mr. Donald says. "Soon, getting this global experience from education may not be seen as a competitive advantage, but a requirement."

Colleges are seeking educational niches, by offering vocational training in subjects where they've developed expertise. Georgian has delivered a course in automotive-engineering technology in partnership with a college in India for the past 10 years. The school will soon launch a marine-engineering technology program in China, and is looking for a home for its bachelor of business in golf management. "If we tried to go into these countries just offering business, there would be too much competition," Mr. Donald says.

Canadian schools are playing an important role, providing education in emerging economies with underdeveloped higher-education systems. "We don't have nearly enough seats for all the students who want higher education," Suneet Johar, associate vice-president of the Times of India, said in an address at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha. "So we get for-profit schools popping up with poor quality." Mr. Donald agrees: "The number of post-secondary institutions India needs to develop is mind boggling."

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Mr. Coote sees opportunity for Niagara College in an alternative approach taken by some countries to fulfill their educational needs. Instead of developing new institutions, Chile offers generous scholarships for students pursuing college skills training abroad. Saudi Arabia has a similar scholarship program.

At CNA-Q, professors and staff have seen significant economic and social changes in Qatar in the past decade. When the school opened its doors, the first co-ed educational institution in the country, male and female students rarely mingled; now a mixed-gender group of students laughs boisterously in a corner of the cafeteria.

While there was no real graduate or research culture, that too is starting to change. "In the past two years, the Qataris have made significant investments in research," said Dr. Michael Long, chair of CNA-Q's office of applied research. "They see research as an alternative to their resource-based, finite oil economy."

When the respiratory health program received accreditation last year it became the first such program outside North America. "Only five respiratory therapists working in Qatar have this designation, and since getting accredited last year, we have eight graduates with the designation," says respiratory therapy instructor Lynn Daley. "So the impact is huge. Our students are changing the profession here."

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