From where I sit - Two-way traffic in land of rivers

November 17, 2011

After a morning visit to Koya University, situated towards Kurdistan-Iraq's Iranian border, I learned that the main road to Raniya was blocked.

Outside the cities, where new roads and buildings mark Kurdistan's rapid development post-Saddam, main roads are poor and the detour took us over high mountains. But even without this sublime landscape, Raniya was worth it.

This is where the 1991 uprising against Saddam Hussein began. Since then, the town has been known as Darwazyi Raparin, or the Gate of the Uprising. Now, its grim-looking buildings house academic activities rather than detention cells.

I was in Kurdistan with a University of Leicester delegation because the government of this autonomous region of Iraq has prioritised investment in education.

The University of Raparin and other new institutions, perhaps even more than new roads, hotels and houses, demonstrate the state's hopes for the future. With the shadow of genocide barely lifted, the "road map" for higher education across some 20 universities, authored by Dlawer Al'Aldeen, minister for higher education, involves an ambitious "capacity building" scheme to bring more academic staff up to the doctoral level.

New and established bodies, such as Dohuk, Salahaddin and Sulaimani universities, see two-way partnerships with institutions such as Leicester as crucial. At Dohuk, there are plans for a European Studies Centre, which we will support. We have also recently established an International English Language Centre with Erbil's University of Kurdistan-Hewler to equip students for courses taught in the tongue at home and abroad, and strengthen its use in the region.

Such partnerships allow Leicester to recruit high-quality students. Relatively few want to study subjects popular among their peers in other countries: many want to do higher degrees in archaeology and urban conservation, mathematics and physics. Perhaps the first isn't surprising; flying into Erbil for the first time over the Tigris and Euphrates, I realised that I was looking down on parts of Mesopotamia.

Yet working in the region can't be about recruitment alone. Universities that visit simply to find students do not add value because they regard internationalisation as a one-way street.

In Kurdistan, it is rare to have a conversation in which the recent and terrifying past isn't vividly present to those who lived through it, not least because family and friends often did not.

I spend a lot of time listening to avoid hasty assumptions. It is a Wikipedia mouthful, but it is prudent to refer to Kurdistan as an "autonomous entity within the federal Iraqi republic". Also, the student unions of the different political parties are very influential. But there is a willingness to explain, and to take visitors to the places that mark Kurdistan's past.

While I was in the east of the state, a colleague visited Halabja, the scene of the 1988 chemical gassing. We appeared on Kurdistan's equivalent of News at Ten because the network thought it would be of general interest that a UK university wanted to work in the region.

Before taking the dark mountain road back to Erbil, we stopped at a student union. My colleagues met students ready to come to Leicester and I gave my third television interview in as many days. After the intense experience of our visit, the interview brought a moment of light relief: it isn't easy to look self-possessed while eating sticky baklava.

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