IRAQ: Sweeping higher education reforms planned

Iraq plans to rebuild its war-torn higher education system by giving financial and administrative independence to universities, establishing specialised institutions and allowing foreign universities to open branches in the country.

Tapping Iraqi talent abroad and encouraging international cooperation will be the drivers of the development of higher education. The specialised universities will be established near to natural resources, and a virtual university will also be launched.

The initiatives were outlined in a new three-year higher education reform plan covering the years 2011-14. It focuses on developing the quality of education, accelerating scientific development and producing a skilled workforce.

The plan was announced by Ali Al-Adeeb, minister of higher education and scientific research, on 6 October, according to its website.

In a statement made at a Karbala University's graduation ceremony on 10 October, Al-Adeeb described Iraq's education as "staggering" beneath the impact of years of "occupation and useless things" - a cryptic reference to conflict - while the rest of the world moved forward.

"Our higher education has not developed since the 1980s, while neighbouring countries surpassed us in fields of teaching methods, curricula and administrative changes."

Al-Adeeb's views echoed comments made earlier this year by Hans-Christop von Sponeck, former UN humanitarian coordinator for Iraq, who told a Ghent University conference on the country's disastrous education situation that "Iraq's former pride, its education system, has collapsed".

He said: "During the years of sanctions, there were almost no teaching aids, books were difficult to obtain, curriculum development and teacher training were all but non-existent and gaining academic training abroad was not possible."

Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, much irrelevant education material had been imported, ideology and religious bias had been introduced and rampant insecurity impeded access to schools and universities, he said.

Years of destruction and lack of investment have left Iraqi universities struggling to compete.

Under the plan, laws which constitute an obstacle to the development of education will be reviewed, and the independence of universities will be gradually achieved to ensure improved management performance.

The objective is to encourage the expansion of university places while maintaining quality. Higher education and research will be upgraded by improving curricula to keep pace with modern international standards, as well as developing programmes to increase the skills and competencies of graduates.

As a step towards implementing the plan, IQD18 billion (US$15 million) has been allocated to initiatives including support for postgraduate research and for scientific centres and units associated with universities. Also on 6 October, USAID submitted to the ministry of higher education a US$150 million proposal for administrative reform in 2011-15, which will include universities.

Sattar Sadkhan Almaliky, head of scientific affairs and public relations at the Iraq-based Babylon University and director of the Iraqi Academic Committee, welcomed the reform plan which he sees as "vital for establishing a knowledge-based Iraqi society".

But he told University World News: "Such a strategy must be based on needs-analysis through independent and serious evaluation of the current status of the Iraqi higher education sector by not only the ministry of higher education but also by independent academic experts."

In line with the plan to allow well-founded foreign universities to open branches in Iraq, on 10 October the American University of Iraq, Sulaimani, announced an important step toward educating the next generation of engineers, with US$30 million in capacity-building support from Afren Plc.

This funding will bolster the university's overall infrastructure and, in particular, development of a petroleum engineering programme that will include a heavy-oil research initiative and vocational training courses, according to press reports.

Athanasios Moulakis, the university president, said: "The establishment of this programme corresponds with an evident need in Iraq for highly skilled engineers - including petroleum engineers - and promises long-term career opportunities for our students."

Nabil Al-Tikriti, an Iraqi researcher at the US-based University of Mary Washington, told University World News that the priority should be for government investment in state universities.

"Although the American University can play a very useful role in future, there must first be a large state investment in public universities to cover the higher education needs of the population as a whole. Once the wider education needs of society are met, there is every reason to support the growth and development of AUIS as a center of elite international education for Iraq's youth."

The reforms may be the first step on a long road back to international competitiveness for Iraqi universities, and their success will be tied to progress in bringing peace and stability to the country.

Universities and academics have been badly affected by the 2003 war and ensuing conflict, and not only by the disruption of life, work, funding and governance and damage to facilities.

In the years immediately after 2003 hundreds of academics and students were killed in assassinations and bombings during factional fighting and sectarian struggles to control campuses, according to a 2010 UNESCO study.

More recently there has been a greatly reduced number of killings of academics, says education in conflict expert Brendan O'Malley, who is also Europe and Middle East editor of University World News. But the murders of academics are continuing - 10 academics and one former academic have been reported killed in separate incidents, mostly targeted assassinations, so far this year, including one American.

Related links
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