What next for Iraqi Higher Education?

Higher education in Iraq has suffered over the past 3 decades due to wars, sanctions, dictatorship and continuing conflict. Last year I undertook a Masters research project to investigate the past and Iraqi thoughts for the future. What I found was both shocking and enlightening. But, it reveals pathways for development. 

History 

Firstly, as a Brit, I hadn’t really grasped how our policies have undermined the formation of a safe, secure and equitable Iraqi state. The U.K ‘s role as a colonial ‘nation-builder’ has had ramifications for Iraq since 1920 to our more recent, catastrophic ‘humanitarian interventions’. 

This has greatly affected Iraqi Higher Education. In the 1990s the UNSCR sanctions deprived Iraqi universities of materials, resources and international contact. Then, during the 2003 U.S. - U.K. invasion an estimated 84% of Iraq’s HE institutions were ‘burnt, looted or destroyed’ (UNU, 2005). 

In the aftermath of occupation, hundreds of academics were assassinated or attacked.Overall, 40% of faculty is estimated to have fled abroad. Surely we need to acknowledge our part in the disaster that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and created the social, political and economic instability Iraqis have borne ever since? 

The tragedy continues with the advent of daesh (Isis). Since the group overwhelmed north-western Iraq in 2014, at least 10 universities have been destroyed. As the group is territorially and militarily defeated, local volunteers are clearing debris and trying to fix water and electricity supplies. Many academics and students have been displaced. 

UNICEF estimates that 65% of girls under 15 are not attending school (2017). Given that there are around 19 million young people in Iraq - 50% of the population - this is a critical situation. But, as many will know, it hasn’t always been like this. Iraq has a scholarly heritage anchored in the achievements of ancient Mesopotamia - the ‘cradle of civilisation’, and innovations of the ‘golden’ Islamic era. 

In the 1970s Iraq’s universities were deemed the best in the middle east and renowned worldwide. Successive leaders, including the Baathists, invested greatly in education, driving literacy up to 80% by 1987 (UNESCO) despite academic restrictions in a brutal regime. 

Perceptions 

So, I wondered, what do Iraqis seek now? Firstly, I asked participants how they viewed offers of international collaboration between universities, given our disastrous political interventions of the past. 

In a sample of 178 people mostly based in Iraq and a quarter overseas, 70% expressed enthusiasm for international support. A further 20% were receptive to assistance, as long as this could be managed by Iraqis and not dominated by western perspectives. Partnerships between U.K. and Iraqi universities are emerging - Professor Eleanor Robson at U.C.L. is leading the Nahrein project to promote the ‘sustainable development of antiquity, cultural heritage and the humanities in Iraq and its neighbours’. 

Also, Associate Professor Ali Al-Sherbaz, Senior Lecturer of Computing at the University of Northampton has developed a programme with University of Babylon since 2012, and this is expanding into other areas of working together. Next I asked about the challenges Iraqi academics and universities have faced over the past 3 years of war. Significantly, instability and lack of safety appear the greatest threat. 

Those who responded took care to explain that this insecurity includes the volatile political and economic situation, as well as epidemic violence which impacts people’s ability to attend university, for work or study. This research also showed that Iraqis seem very aware of what is lacking. That includes, they say, a lack of equipment, resources, modern teaching methods, and interestingly, a lack of scientific progress. 

So, what would Iraqis like to learn? It’s a big question but there’s a paucity of research in this area, so I’m glad I asked. Amongst the great range of responses, science emerges as the top answer. Scientific knowledge formed the backbone of Iraq’s medical, technology, and engineering boom of the 1970s. It seems people haven’t forgotten. 

Respondents also explained that they seek creativity, variety and modernisation in teaching. Some of those who have studied abroad are aware of student-centred approaches and diversity in learning, whereas much of the education system in Iraq focuses on an exam style of instruction. Many state the need for practical education linked to the needs of the workplace, which is also indicative of the high unemployment rate. 

Finally, what else do Iraqis want to ask about, for the future of their higher education? There were two very clear sets of responses. Firstly, the desire for political change is evident, insofar as it affects the management of universities. Secondly, people want to know how IHE will be developed as part of wider, deeper rebuilding of the country in the aftermath of conflict. 

It’s a question no one can answer directly as yet, but I’m hoping to help find out… 

Written by Fran Sutherland, FHEA, MEd, PGCE, PgC. Fran is further exploring Iraqi higher education in a PhD. She is a student at the School of Education, University of Sheffield. To make contact please email FaSutherland1@sheffield.ac.uk or on Twitter at @Fran_sez. The Views expressed are those of the author alone and not of any institution. 

References 

Harb, I (2008) Higher Education and the Future of Iraq, U.S. Institute of Peace, Tuesday, January 1, 2008. https://www.usip.org/publications/2008/01/higher-education-and-future-iraq 

Sutherland, F. (2017) The case for qualitative restitution of Iraqi Higher Education, MEd dissertation, School of Education, University of Sheffield. 

United Nations University (anon) (2005) The Current Status And Future Prospects For The Transformation And Reconstruction Of The Higher Education System In Iraq, UNESCO, Archive.Unu.Edu/News/Ili/Iraq.Doc 

Anon author, (8 Aug 2016) Fight or Flight: The Desperate Plight of Iraq’s “Generation 2000”, International Crisis Group, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/iraq/fight-or-flight-desperate-plight-iraq-s-generation-2000 

UNESCO Office for Iraq (2017) Literacy and non-formal education for Iraq http://www.unesco.org/new/en/iraq-office/education/literacy-non-formal-education/ 

Nabeel, G., (10 July 2017) 10 Iraqi Universities Rebuild In Wake of Islamic State, Iraq Solidarity News, LA 17th July 2017 https://iraq-solidarity.blogspot.co.uk/2017/07/10-iraqi-universities-rebuild-in-wake.html?m=1 

UNDP (2017) About Iraq, LA 4 July 2017 http://www.iq.undp.org/content/iraq/en/home/countryinfo.html
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