Divisions over readiness for ‘Study in Iraq’ initiative

Iraq has launched a ‘Study in Iraq’ initiative for admitting Arab and foreign students into Iraqi universities.

Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Dr Naeem Abd Yaser Al-Aboudi, speaking at a meeting of the advisory board of the ministry on 26 February, called upon all universities to facilitate the procedures for admitting foreign students in university and postgraduate studies, and to create websites for registering foreign students wishing to study in the specialties that will be announced soon.

He said the “pioneering” initiative represents an attempt to further rebuild Iraqi universities’ reputation and place in international rankings (to the levels enjoyed before the 2003 Iraq war).

Al-Aboudi indicated the readiness of Iraqi universities to provide scholarships to non-Iraqi students wishing to complete their university and higher studies in various specialisations.

The ‘Study in Iraq’ initiative is a result of the implementation of the 2018-2022 Iraqi Government Program that focused on the reconstruction and rehabilitation of universities in the liberated areas and expanding partnerships with the private sector, strengthening joint research and developing twinning programmes with international universities, as well as developing academic capabilities and improving the international ranking of universities.

On 5 March, the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research released a video to promote the Study in Iraq initiative.

Iraq universities are ready for foreign students

Dr Mutar Sabeeh Naser from the college of education at the University of Thi-Qar in Iraq told University World News: “I believe that most Iraqi universities are prepared to accept international students in a number of disciplines and Iraqi universities and professors have sufficient experience to deal with the Study in Iraq initiative.

“Prior to the 2003 Iraq war, we had numerous international students studying in a variety of disciplines.”

“To my knowledge, international students attending institutions in Iraq won’t have to deal with any particularly difficult situations,” said Naser, who is the co-author of the 2022 study titled “The Working Experience Impact on the Iraqi In-Service Teachers’ Perception of Managing FL Classes”.

In the year 2019-20, the number of foreign students represented between 1% and 2% of the total number of Iraqi students, according to the report on the 2018-2022 Government Program in higher education and scientific research.

“The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in Iraq will be responsible for ensuring that international students in Iraq have a safe and welcoming environment in which to pursue their academic goals,” Naser said.

“We are home to a number of prestigious educational institutions. Prospective international students should peruse each institution’s website in order to select the one that best suits their academic and professional goals,” he pointed out.

Clear vision and solid planning needed

In contrast, an education policy analyst at the American University of Iraq (AUI) has a more cautionary take on Iraqi higher education. On condition of anonymity, the analyst told University World News: “Certainly, ‘Study in Iraq’ is an ambitious and necessary initiative to enable Iraq and its higher education institutions to reconnect with the world after decades of conflict and isolation.

“However, opening the door for international students requires a clear vision and solid planning, especially in a country that has yet to recover from the impact of ongoing conflict and instability.

“As of today, information about the objective, scope, cost, funding and how to accommodate international students is not available to establish a clear view of the project’s viability.”

Iraqi universities in survival mode

The AUI analyst noted that while Iraq’s universities are gradually re-establishing their place in the region, without a clear roadmap and a comprehensive reform of its higher education institutions, it won’t be an easy process in a competitive environment for international students.

“Public universities are already in survival mode, facing many financial and political problems that have limited their expected social and economic impacts in post-conflict Iraq,” the analyst commented.

“The main challenges Iraqi higher education institutions face are the high demand for post-secondary education with limited financial resources, lack of strategic planning and lack of a clear vision about their role in the economic and social development of the country.”

The analyst noted that while publicly funded universities have privatised some of their activities to respond to the high demand for post-secondary education through evening classes and parallel education, most of the revenue goes to operational rather than development projects. Consequently, Iraqi universities still struggle to build good infrastructure and offer high-quality education.

“In recent years Iraqi higher education has adopted a quantitative growth agenda to absorb the high demand for universities. Yet, the system needs real qualitative reform. I hope this new initiative is not another quantitative measure for only a better position in the international university ranking systems,” the analyst said.

“Nevertheless, the private sector is growing, and it has some universities, including a few American-style universities, that offer quality education with good infrastructure, modern labs and facilities, and up-to-date curricula. The private sector could play a role in the Study in Iraq initiative,” the analyst pointed out, before raising concerns over the fact that many other private universities offer poor-quality education.

“If those poor-quality private universities, with good financial resources, attempt to attract international students, this could damage the previous reputation of Iraqi higher education prior to the 2003 Iraq war, which previously attracted many international students from the Middle East,” the analyst said.

“I believe the Ministry of Higher Education partially relies on that glorious reputation as a tool to attract more international students to its campuses.”

Echoing the AUI analyst’s views, Nigel Healey, professor of international higher education and vice-president for global and community engagement at the University of Limerick in Ireland, told University World News: “Iraq has a long and proud tradition as a seat of higher learning, dating back through the ages.”

Healey noted, however, that in the last 30 years, the country has been wracked by wars and civil conflict, leaving the infrastructure of its universities and colleges degraded and their faculty base weakened.

Nonetheless, Healey is cautiously optimistic. “Iraq appears to be returning to peace and stability 20 years after the overthrow of former president Saddam Hussein, and the current president, Abdul Latif Rashid, is intent on rebuilding economic life. This includes restoring the higher education system and once again opening campuses to foreign students from across the region,” he said.

“It remains unclear whether the higher education institutions yet have the capacity to increase enrolments, or whether foreign students will have the confidence to return in any significant numbers.”

Challenges facing the Study in Iraq initiative

The AUI analyst made a salient point regarding the financial strain and pressure that public universities are under because of the high demand for higher education.

“This critical situation will limit their capacity to serve international students and provide them with an adequate quality education. Public and private institutions are operated under the authority of the Ministry of Higher Education with limited autonomy to manage their academic and financial affairs,” the analyst said.

“Without reasonable independence, universities will struggle to establish institutional strategies to attract and serve international students. Iraq is an economically and politically unstable state, [a situation that has] impacted all sides of lives, including higher education. This instability might discourage international students from coming to Iraq,” the analyst emphasised.

Expanding on these thoughts, Healey said that “Iraqi universities and colleges face numerous challenges, including damaged and degraded buildings, libraries, outdated ICT infrastructures, frequent power outages and a relatively weak faculty base, where a minority of staff reportedly holds doctoral qualifications. University governance is also underdeveloped.”

Resources and infrastructure questions

Professor Sami Alhasnawi, from the college of education at the University of Al-Qadisiyah in Iraq, told University World News: “From my own perspective as a scholar specialised in internationalising higher education, such an initiative is a very promising step towards the visibility of our universities at the international level.”

“However, we need to consider our human resources and infrastructure to touch the base and be successful,” he cautioned.

“For this, we need to make sure that our admin and teaching staff are really seriously ready to accept others of diverse language, cultural and educational backgrounds,” said Alhasnawi, who is the author of the study “English as an Academic Lingua Franca: Discourse hybridity and meaning multiplicity in an international Anglophone HE institution”.

Alhasnawi emphasised that “the staff should be competent in English to avoid imposing our own Arabic as a language of education and for day-to-day communication. This needs the ministry to work on adopting an inclusive language policy and encourage all admin and teaching staff to develop their English language skills.”

Alhasnawi stressed the need to have local staff and students inter-culturally aware of, and positively responsive to, others’ different norms and conventions.

“As for the infrastructure, I think the ministry needs to think about IT service and work on e-enabled admin and teaching affairs. So there should be training workshops to this end,” he said.

“More attention should also be given to the teaching rooms, dorms, transportation system, and other supporting facilities for those of special needs. The universities need to know more and more about what areas of study foreign students are relatively interested in to respond to the global market.”

Alhasnawi emphasised that in order to be “a fruitful internationalisation process, the Ministry of Higher Education needs to fund our Iraqi scholars to do research with international universities and have their degrees from prestigious universities across the world”.

He noted that this would help to attract international students to study in Iraq when they see that the academic profile of Iraqi scholars is strong in terms of their academic degrees, rank and research publications.

“We also need to consider inviting or recruiting international scholars and researchers across our Iraqi universities. At the national level, we need to consider issues related to the visa applications and security of the recruited foreign students,” he said.

“The ministry can work on developing three universities in different cities to be the hub for internationalisation and then move into considering other universities for this initiative,” Alhasnawi concluded.

Heavy investment a pre-condition

Healey, again, is cautiously optimistic. “The Iraqi government’s ambition to rebuild Iraq’s higher education system is admirable and encouraging,” he said. However, he noted that realising this ambition would require heavy investment in physical and digital infrastructure and human capital.

“The more this can be done in partnership with universities from around the world, the more quickly this can be achieved,” Healey suggested.

“The transformation of the higher education systems in Central and Eastern Europe during the 1990s under various European Union programmes, for example, offers one a blueprint for positive change,” Healey concluded.

The AUI analyst sums up as follows: “Inviting international students, especially students from the region, is not new to Iraqi higher education. Iraqi universities can build on that experience, and explore the experiences of other countries, to develop an effective international strategy.

“I believe that while recruiting international students is where most higher education institutions and countries are going, reforming Iraqi higher education should be the priority, at least for the time being.”