UK strives to restore the 'pride of the Middle East'

British delegation aims to help Iraq rebuild its war-torn higher education sector, writes John Gill

January 29, 2009

After years of war preceded by decades of tyranny, Iraq's once- esteemed higher education sector is in tatters.

But with some semblance of normality now returning to the country, a delegation of academics and policymakers has visited Baghdad to assess how the UK can help to resurrect a sector that was once "the pride of the Middle East".

The visit coincided with the launch of a new scholarship scheme by Nuri al-Maliki, Iraq's Prime Minister, that aims to help many more Iraqi undergraduates study in the UK and elsewhere overseas.

Among those in the delegation were representatives of the UK Government, Universities UK and the British Council, as well as John Withrington, dean of international development at the University of Exeter and chairman of the British Universities Iraq Consortium (BUIC).

Speaking to Times Higher Education from Kuwait, Dr Withrington said it was right that the UK's relationship with Iraq should focus on education.

"Iraqi higher education has been in a dismal state for decades, even prior to Saddam Hussein," he said.

"But the destruction of the two Gulf wars was absolute - after the first war, something like 83 per cent of university infrastructure in the country was destroyed.

"So clearly there's a long way to go in terms of capacity building. The question for the UK is how we can help to restore its abilities."

The BUIC and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills have commissioned joint research to address the issue.

Dr Withrington said: "With UK education being respected so highly there, as it still is, there's a natural tendency for Iraq to turn to us for guidance on curriculum development, quality assurance and governance systems."

The risks faced by Iraqi academics have led to many fleeing the country in recent years, so a shortage of faculty is another hurdle to be overcome.

"Hundreds of academics have been targeted and assassinated in Iraq. In recent weeks there were bomb incidents involving both Abed Theyabi, the Higher Education Minister of Iraq, and one of his deputies, too," Dr Withrington said.

"It is still a desperate situation, and so many professionals have fled that there's an enormous amount of work to be done to get universities functioning again."

In the short term he sees twinning arrangements, joint research and the training of Iraqi students as simple steps that the UK can take to help. But in the longer term, more ambitious involvement is a realistic option, Dr Withrington believes.

He said: "Iraq's education system used to be the pride of the Middle East, and it would be good to see it restored.

"It's in all our interests to see a strong university sector in Iraq. Although I don't see UK universities opening campuses there right away, by no means do I consider that to be an impossibility in the longer term."

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