Kuwait's ambassadors from student world

May 12, 1995

The Iraqi invasion of 1990 and the subsequent Nintendo war may be fading fast from the West's public consciousness, but Kuwait's recovery process will place a severe burden on the country for years to come.

International aid has bolstered what remains of Kuwait's wealth, but the economy is still weakened and the days when its young people could regard a spell at university as a relaxing prelude to entry to an easy jobs market have disappeared in the acrid smoke from the burning oil installations.

Before the invasion the University of Kuwait, founded in 1966, was seen by many as a regional showpiece, a view not wholly shared by a previous rector, who in 1988 called it a "third-class institution normally found in the third world".

Nevertheless, the Iraqis recognised the value of the university's library, technical equipment and research and it was badly vandalised and robbed by Saddam Hussein's retreating forces.

Rasha Al-Sabah, vice rector of the university at the time of the invasion, was amazed at how systematic much of the looting of books and equipment was. "In the weeks before the invasion I had wondered about the sudden interest among Iraqi colleagues in coming to Kuwait," she said.

That interest escalated almost to the point of desperation as Iraqi academics became increasingly pressing in their demands to visit the university - even in the hottest period of the long vacation immediately before the invasion when there would have been few colleagues to meet. The explanation for their sudden interest had to await the end of the Gulf War and the Iraqi withdrawal.

"I returned to the university in early March 1991, barely two weeks after the liberation, and took a record of damage and wholesale looting which had taken place on the campus.

Libraries had been looted and their contents carted off to Baghdad, laboratories raided and computer equipment removed, buildings physically damaged or even burned, and research targeted.

"When we returned it was our objective to re-open the university in September 1991 to show Saddam Hussein he might have succeeded in bringing the academic process to a halt for a year, but that we were not going to lose yet another year," Professor Al-Sabah said.

"The government released emergency funds for the university to achieve its object and we have held graduation ceremonies, teaching has resumed and research restarted.

"But we have recovered 100 per cent, certainly in terms of libraries," said Professor Al-Sabah, now under-secretary at the ministry of higher education. "What breaks our hearts is to realise that the people who actually did the looting and ransacking of our universities were fellow academics, some of who we had received in our offices."

Restoring the university to its pre-war condition is only one of the Kuwaiti government's aims. The scholarship programme under which state-funded students travel overseas (700 of them to Britain - second only in size to the group studying in the United States and Canada) is in the process of being reviewed.

At the moment the scheme is based on assessments of the numbers in specific occupations - engineering or dentistry for example - needed by the local job market at the time of likely graduation. The emphasis is on the established professions but Professor Al-Sabah would like to include other subjects. "If we have a brilliant Kuwaiti who has been accepted to read philosophy at Oxford or international relations at Harvard, what right do I as an academic have to say that this does not fit in our plan?" "After all this student, who is a wonderful ambassador for Kuwait, will do very good work once they return," she says.

Proposals under government consideration will refine manpower planning, on which the scholarships are based, and establish a committee selected by the ministry of education from the university and Kuwait's network of vocational colleges to advise on how to meet manpower demand.

With 15,000 students Professor Al-Sabah says Kuwait has reached the upper limit of what it can sustain. "Kuwait cannot deal with more students without the state establishing a second university. But even if you expanded and established a new university what will you do with its products?

Plans for an alternative private university seem to have fallen foul of the post-Gulf economic crisis, but there is pressure from fundamentalists for the introduction of segregated undergraduate teaching, a step which would require a new institution and which runs counter to the under-secretary's view that one state university is enough.

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