IRAQ: US$1 billion to rebuild higher education

Iraq has launched a five-year, $1 billion higher education plan to boost the nation's science and technology workforce while promoting knowledge-based sustainable development. The plan was announced on Saturday by Iraq Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki who is in the US to sign an implementation agreement and establish an American Universities Iraq Consortium.

The agreement to manage the plan was signed by al-Maliki, on behalf of the Iraqi government's committee for education development, and Stephen Moseley, President of the Washington-based Academy for Educational Development.

The plan will be implemented in two phases: the first with a scholarship initiative to send up to 10,000 Iraqi students abroad each year over the next five years. The students will undertake two-year technical degrees as well as bachelor, masters and doctoral degrees at universities in Australia, Canada, Britain and the US.

Under a $54 million pilot programme, 500 students will go to the US for the 2009-2010 academic year. The degrees include engineering, health, science and technology as well as education.

To ensure students from across Iraq have fair access to the scholarships, the numbers allocated will be proportional to the population in each of the 18 provinces. While a student's grades will be the main criteria for selection, the applicant must also be an Iraqi citizen who has lived in Iraq for two years prior to the application.

Students must agree to return to Iraq to serve the same number of years as they were away to minimise the problem of brain drain. The applicants must also agree to repay their scholarship money if they do not return.

In order to streamline student placements, the American Universities Iraq Consortium has been established. The consortium consists of 22 universities as founding members but is open to all interested accredited US higher education institutions.

It will help place Iraqi students as well as accelerate their admissions by providing those who meet admission requirements but need English language improvement with provisional entry. Students will be given advice on housing options and other details, and will be admitted to the US on an exchange visitor visa to ensure their return to Iraq.

The second phase of the plan involves an overhaul of the entire Iraq education system from K-12 to higher education. The focus will be on rebuilding university infrastructure, including new laboratories and establishing internet connections.

Sattar Sadkhan Almaliky, head of scientific affairs and public relations at Babylon University in Iraq and director of the Iraqi Academic Committee, said building infrastructure had to be given top priority as most universities in the war-torn nation were not fully operational.

Malik Alasmar, an Iraqi researcher based at the University of Ghent in Belgium, welcomed the new development: "This new initiative is a milestone in Iraq's rebuilding of its higher education and academic systems that were dramatically damaged as a result of many years of war and sanctions, as well as the 2003 US-led invasion and the subsequent violence."

Alasmar said that besides developing human resources for the reconstruction of the conflict-wracked country, Iraq needed to protect its local scientists because more than 400 Iraqi academics had been killed since the invasion. Efforts also had to be made to encourage Iraqi expatriates to return home as they number ed some 350,000 or 17% of the 2 million Iraqi citizens who fled abroad in recent years.

This could be done by improving security as well as creating an academic and scientific research centre within universities to identify the academics needed, Alasmar said. The centres could create electronic websites for registering Iraqi academics outside the country, listing their specialisations and capacities and connecting them to the centres.

Hilmi Salem, a higher education consultant at a Palestine-based sustainable development research institute, said that although scholarships and exchange programmes were important, strengthening Iraq's higher education capacity-building and taking care of local human resources were the most meaningful ways to ensure future stability, security and economic growth.

"Instead of giving millions of dollars to American universities, the money should be used in facing the real problems with Iraqi universities: the big depletion of faculty because of the security situation, reforming Iraq's own higher education system and tackling the challenges of rebuilding and enhancing its capacity," Salem said.