Kurds plan to host American University

January 26, 2007

With its fast-growing higher education sector, Iraq's northern territory is providing a haven for academics fleeing Baghdad, writes Matt Salusbury

A private American University has been granted a charter to open in the Kurdish city of Sulimaniyah "next year or the year after".

The move, announced by Idriss Hadi Salih, Higher Education Minister in the Kurdistan Regional Government, is part of the effort to stem the brain drain afflicting Iraqi academia.

The American University of Iraq, inspired by institutions in Cairo and Beirut, will receive $10.5 million (£5 million) in funding from US agencies, as well as finance from some Kurdish sources.

As violence has escalated in the Iraqi capital Baghdad, increasing numbers of academics have fled to the relatively safe Kurd-controlled north in the hope of finding employment in its fast-expanding higher education sector.

Several Baghdad-based research projects are considering the move to Sulimaniyah, while the region's first English-language university, the new Kurdistan University Halwer, is up and running, with foundation English courses accredited by Bradford University in the UK.

Iraqi Kurdistan now boasts five universities and 15 higher education institutes, employing a total of 3,000 staff. But with 60,000 students, the region is experiencing a shortage of university teachers.

The Education Ministry runs scholarships "for the significant amount of teachers from Baghdad" leaving the capital and moving to Kurdistan "for security reasons". There is a special programme for filling teaching posts with teachers from other parts of Iraq. But the continuing expansion of higher education is expected to create a further shortage, which the Ministry is making plans to accommodate.

When Dr Salih visited the UK to meet with the British Council earlier this month, a memorandum of understanding was signed that will see a British Council office open in the regional capital Erbil (also known as Halwer).

British Council assistance will focus on training, Dr Salih said: "The top priority is to train our leadership - academics, technicians and administrators." Teachers also need to be trained in information technology to "decrease the gap" caused by years of isolation for the Kurdish region.

New technology is arriving "very quickly - the new generation are leading their teachers," Dr Salih added.

The Kurdish delegation was impressed by the interactive whiteboards they saw on their UK visit. But as Dishad Abdul-Rahman, Education Minister (primary and secondary), admitted, teachers need "electricity. We need power".

Iraq has on average two hours of power a day.

Dr Salih admited: "There are shortages in quality control." He said this had led to student strikes over the quality of teaching at the state-run Sulimaniyah University two years ago.

"In a democratic atmosphere, it is the students' right," he said.

But he expained that the Ministry had "no ranking for universities, we haven't an evaluation or assessment system. But we are working on it."

The Ministry now has a Special Directorate for College Control and Assessment.

* The January 17 bombing of Baghdad's Mustansiriyah University has given impetus to the appeal launched by the Council for Assisting Refugee Academics.

Cara warned that academics were being systematically targeted. More than 200 academics have been assassinated since 2003, including Issam al-Rawi, head of the Association of University Professors, who said last year:

"Political groups inside and outside the country are seeking to rid Iraq of individuals capable of independent thought."

Cara said donations would help it to give practical and financial support to academics and their families, raise awareness of their plight, and identify hosting opportunities in UK institutions.

Donations may be made at www.academic-refugees.org/  

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