Revolt and corruption stall Iraq's recovery

September 23, 2005

Attempts to rebuild Iraq's universities are being hampered by the growing insurgency and donors' doubts about the country's long-term stability.

And the country's ambassador to Unesco, Muhi al-Khateeb, has added a further factor - the perceived level of corruption.

"Our beloved country is in very bad shape," Dr al-Khateeb told a London symposium on higher education in Iraq. "There is corruption and we are not trusted."

Iraqi academics highlighted the difficulties faced by universities in parts of the country affected by the Sunni insurgency - a litany of deprivation that international efforts have yet to dent. But the Minister for Higher Education from the semi-autonomous Kurdish region stressed that it offered a relatively safe haven for international collaborators, albeit one hampered by the security situation in the rest of the country.

Akhtar Najmaddin told the symposium at Westminster University that Kurdish Iraq suffered "immensely" under Saddam Hussein's regime when its universities were damaged, neglected and affected by United Nations'

sanctions.

Since the 1991 uprising, effective autonomy produced a vibrant higher education system with more than 2,500 academics, 40,000 undergraduates and 2,000 postgraduates. Millions of dollars had been allocated to the design and construction of buildings, she said. Now the universities wanted to modernise their undergraduate and graduate curricula and introduce quality assurance systems.

"Our universities are forward-looking and ambitious. Kurdistan is a good example of what life would be like in a democratic and politically stable Iraq," Dr Najmaddin said.

The general security situation led to the suspension of a reciprocal scheme under which up to 5 per cent of undergraduates from the rest of Iraq could study in the Kurdish region. Few Kurds wanted to study at universities in the rest of Iraq.

The low proportion of Iraqi academics with PhDs and masters from outside the country is one of the most pressing problems, according to several speakers at the symposium. Their numbers are set to tumble as those who travelled overseas for their advanced degrees before Saddam's regime reach the end of their careers.

A further issue is whether some of Iraq's 24 universities are educationally viable. During the Saddam regime, there was expansion at the expense of quality, Obay al-Dewachi, president of the University of Mosul, said. A number of universities were established for political motives and remain too small to be viable.

They are, however, in Sunni areas and rationalisation would further fuel the sectarian strife.

Muhammed al-Da'mi, of Baghdad University's College of Education for Women, said the unplanned expansion had been "catastrophic", with professors "made up" by mass-producing doctorates and masters degrees.

Dr al-Da'mi suggested an Iraqi-American University as a corrective instrument "to beat the growing and marked ignorance predominant in local universities".

He said it would be more practical to open the university in an Iraqi city rather than building an "aerial bridge" to US institutions.

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