A national commission to guide the long-term reconstruction of Iraq's shattered higher education system, proposed this week by the United Nations University, may lead to the closure of institutions established by the former regime.
An assessment by the UNU says 40 per cent of the infrastructure is under reconstruction.
"The devastation of the Iraqi system of higher education has been overlooked... but represents an important consequence of the conflicts, economic sanctions and ongoing turmoil in Iraq," according to the report's author, Jairam Reddy, director of the UNU International Leadership Institute in Amman, Jordan.
"Repairing Iraq's higher education system is a prerequisite to the repair of the country as a whole," said Dr Reddy, who chaired the post-apartheid commission that reviewed South Africa's university system. That led to a reduction in the overall number of institutions and mergers between stronger and weaker universities.
Dr Reddy said it would be the logical direction to follow in Iraq.
Many of Iraq's universities were set up in the past 20 years by Saddam Hussein for political reasons. Today, it has 20 universities and 47 technical institutes. Some of those in Sunni areas remain non-viable, raising the possibility of politically divisive closures.
Dr Reddy said: "Universities are among the best institutions to bring understanding of cultural and ethnic diversity and stress the importance of nation-building in the form of a unified Iraq."
Hans van Ginkel, rector of the Tokyo-based UNU, added: "The dedication of educators who remain in a shattered Iraq should inspire the swift, meaningful and practical support of the international academic community."
If accepted by the new Iraqi Government, the commission, made up of officials, academics and students, would assess the number of universities needed to ensure quality and efficiency.
Dr Reddy said it would need to be set up within "a framework that is owned by the Government, institutions and stakeholders within which the systematic, incremental and progressive reconstruction of the higher education system can unfold".