Qatar's Iraq gesture challenges US grip

June 27, 2003

A tiny Gulf state is to challenge US universities' domination of the rebuilding of Iraqi higher education.

Sheikha Mozah Bint Nasser Abdullah Al-Misnad, first lady of Qatar and Unesco's special envoy for basic and higher education, announced a multimillion dollar international fund for the reconstruction of Iraq's universities at a conference of the agency's higher education partners.

Qatar is to give $15 million (£9 million) as the fund's initial donation.

"It is the duty of the international community to stand up for Iraq in these troubled times so that it can once again stand as a world leader in education, research and culture," she said.

"It is our intention to work closely with international donors to support Iraq as it engineers its own future by taking advantage of the rich resources of its citizens."

She later signed a memorandum of understanding with Unesco director-general Koïchiro Matsuura. A full agreement is expected in September. By then the needs of Iraq's universities will have been established through a wider Unesco project, funded by the Japanese government.

Mohammed Fathy Saoud, higher education adviser to Qatar's Foundation for Education, Science and Community Development, told The THES that he hoped it would be possible to work alongside the $3 million-$5 million US Agency for International Development project announced earlier this month and restricted to US university-led consortia. Dr Mohammed said the Qatar fund would "target some universities and some problemsI It is in our interests to see that there is some articulation with other donors and initiatives".

Meanwhile, the pace of globalisation emerged as a major issue at the conference. Student numbers have exploded and constraints on public spending have grown. Private universities have mushroomed, enrolling 31.5 per cent of students worldwide. At the same time, private profit and not-for-profit universities have become stronger and threats to academic freedom have increased.

High on the list of concerns felt by delegates reviewing Unesco's 1998 World Declaration on Higher Education was the potential for unregulated trade in higher education services through the General Agreement on Trade in Services.

Student organisations led by the International Union of Students argued that higher education was a public good, a public responsibility and a human right. Elizabeth Carlyle, treasurer of IUS, said Gats was "not a tool for internationalisation but a process driven foremost by narrow commercial interests".

Others saw the opportunity for regulating an unregulated market and ensuring quality. Sir John Daniel, Unesco's assistant director-general, said: "Trade in higher education is not going to wash away hundreds of years of academic tradition."

But Cristovam Buarque, Brazil's minister of education, said universities in the developed world should collaborate with poorer indebted countries to "create a world consciousness that can interrupt the barbarous march we are making towards a divided, alienated society".

Professor Buarque called on Unesco to make 2004 or 2005 the Year of the University and to sponsor a day in 2003 for universities to stop and reflect on their futures.

"Universities could think about ways of being tools for eradicating hunger and making basic education universally available. Universities could provide a day for discussions on constructing peace and returning to the guarantee of success for their students."

Details: www.qf.edu.qa

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