Vice-chancellors are held in high esteem in the UK, but they can’t hold up the traffic. In Iraq, university leaders are so powerful that they can pick up the phone and order a police escort.
So it was that on my first visit to the University of Kufa, 110 miles south of Baghdad, I found myself being waved through the congested streets like royalty. With temperatures of 50°C, August was perhaps not the best time to visit: get into a car parked in the sun there and you know what it must feel like to be a Christmas turkey.
Over the past three years, the University of Leicester has been working in the autonomous northern region of Iraq, helping Kurdistan to rebuild an academy devastated by years of Saddam Hussein’s ethnic cleansing.
In October 2011, we launched a capacity building project with the University of Kurdistan Hewlêr, which established an English language centre to provide new opportunities for local students to gain internationally recognised qualifications in the tongue. The testing is now being administered by a third partner, the Pearson Group.
We have also been helping to develop courses at Kufa’s Medical School in southern Iraq, and the visit was at the university’s invitation to look at ways to strengthen and widen our relationship.
In June, Leicester and Kufa signed an agreement to cooperate on staff and student exchanges, split-site PhDs, academic training and development, and mutually beneficial research.
People in the UK often ask about the dangers of working in Iraq. Kurdistan feels surprisingly safe and there are a lot of expats working there. In southern Iraq, Baghdad is dangerous, but we were able to travel freely around the Najaf region, visiting Babylon (clumsily rebuilt by Saddam) and the spectacular holy shrine of Imām Alī – the first Imam of the Shia Muslims and cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.
The biggest challenge is the region’s infrastructure. The Kurdish people suffered terribly under Saddam’s rule: tens of thousands of people were massacred and villages, hospitals, schools, mosques and churches were destroyed. But a decade after the end of his genocidal regime, multibillion-pound investments are transforming Kurdistan.
In the south, the universities have been hard hit by their enforced isolation from the international academic community. Working with institutions in the US or Australia, you take the human, physical infrastructure and research base for granted: in Iraq, you are starting from a different place.
So why are we doing it? Diversifying the countries with which we collaborate and from where we recruit students is part of Leicester’s international strategy. Since we have been operating in the Middle East, we have recruited a more diverse range of students, whose interests extend to subjects beyond management, media and engineering.
We also aim to play some small part in the capacity building strategies of regions recovering from conflict. An important aspect of this is increasing students’ opportunities for learning English in preparation for an international education. The English language centre we are establishing with Kufa is a very good model. It is a tripartite system: we bring the intellectual expertise in curriculum development, Pearson offers secure testing and an internationally recognised award, and the local institution provides the infrastructure.
There are, of course, political sensitivities. However, everyone I met was grateful for the overthrow of Saddam. Iraq is rapidly developing its academy and is looking to the UK, not only for help and support, but also as a model for the future.