UK: Collaborate with Iraq, universities told

British universities could play a key role in rebuilding Iraq's higher education sector, says a new report. Published by the UK Higher Education International Unit, the British Universities Iraq Consortium and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

It analyses key trends in Iraqi higher education, the pathways and roadblocks to future UK-Iraq collaboration, and it offers recommendations for policy-makers to consider ways of improving relations with the Iraqi community.

Higher education Minister David Lammy said the government was keen to support education development in Iraq and was allocating £300,000 from 2009-11 for a leadership and management training programme for Iraq universities.

The report notes that Iraq has already made education a priority. In June 2008, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki asked parliament for US$1billion to improve the Iraqi education system and launch a five-year programme to fund 10,000 Iraqi students for undergraduate or graduate degrees to study in Australia, Canada, the UK, and the US.

The scheme was launched in January as Iraq's Education Initiative. Undergraduates will get 70% of the scholarships, 10% will be allocated for postgraduate degrees and 20% for postgraduate research degrees. A further $55 million will go towards funding 500 students' education for the 2009-10 academic year.

But the report also issues a warning to British universities: "Engaging with Iraqi higher education remains one of the more complex and challenging ventures in today's international education world. From elementary personal safety considerations to basic learning and teaching infrastructure deficiencies, Iraq does not offer an engagement landscape which lends itself to easy success. Those who expect short-term gains stand to be disappointed."

Moreover, competition is intensifying. The US has been boosting its activities in Iraq throughout 2008 and 2009. The likely effect will be a competitive infringement on Britain's well-established position.

The past engagement of UK universities in Iraq is a distinct advantage, but it is by no means a guarantee that the country, or its universities, will automatically be partners of choice, the report says.

Professor Rick Trainor, President of Universities UK, said: "Iraq was once home to some of the finest universities in the Middle East but it faces an uphill struggle to regain that status. It's now home to a sizeable pool of under-developed and under-provided academic talent."

The report recommends a reform of visa procedures to make them more "transparent" with applications processed in Iraq. It says English language teaching and testing should be widely available and improved in the country while cooperation with relevant Iraqi ministries and agencies should be improved.

A wide range of partnerships with academic organisations such as BUIC, businesses, education ministries and the British Council should also be encouraged as part of a 'UK Ltd' approach; and universities should seek to collaborate on research.