As British military operations in Iraq drew to a close this week, Iraq’s Prime Minister was in London to announce a series of initiatives to strengthen links between universities in the two countries.
Nouri al-Maliki, who arrived amid tight security for a round-table discussion at the British Council’s headquarters on 30 April, spoke of a new era in relations between the UK and Iraq, which he said would hark back to an earlier focus on education.
He announced details of the pilot of a new scholarship scheme that will see 300 Iraqi students attend UK universities in 2009, with the aim of increasing the total number of scholarship students studying overseas to 10,000 in time.
In addition, the British Government announced measures to ease visa restrictions on Iraqi students, as well as £3 million from the Department for International Development to fund partnership and twinning programmes between universities in the two countries.
Addressing Neil Kinnock, chairman of the British Council, through an interpreter, Mr Maliki said: “It’s especially poignant and important to stress that on the day that British troops are withdrawing, a new era of culture and education exchanges should start.
“We should acknowledge and give thanks to the efforts of the military… [for this is possible] as a result of their blood and their sacrifice.”
The Iraqi-financed scholarship scheme has been set up as part of an education initiative launched by Mr Maliki in January, but the number of students who will participate in its first year had not been announced until this week.
The Iraqi Prime Minister said: “Education and knowledge are the tools that build bridges between nations: it is on this that the true value of nations is built.
“British [higher education] institutions were always highly regarded and present in Iraq, and it’s something all Iraqis are proud of when they get British degrees.
“It’s true to say that Iraq has had a setback at all levels from primary… to university education under the previous regime, so these initiatives are needed.”
A special adviser to Mr Maliki told the meeting that the scholarship programme would send students not only to the UK, but also to the US, Canada and Australia.
He said that the aims for this week’s visit – to secure an agreement to ease visa restrictions on Iraqi students, develop a strategy for the first tranche of scholarships and lay plans for a new English language teaching centre in Iraq – had all been achieved.
A statement from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills stressed the need for Iraq, like other countries, to “ensure that education systems meet the changing needs of a global economy and are aligned with the needs of employers, business and industry”.
“As for vocational education, we recognise the importance that this sector can play in the rebuilding of Iraq,” it said.
“Vocational education is also important for progression into higher education, providing top-up courses to ensure students can compete for places at UK universities.”
Lord Kinnock ended the meeting on a lighter note, recalling two Iraqi teammates he had played rugby with during his student days in Wales.
“In the rugby team I played in at Cardiff University, we had two Iraqi Kurds and they were ferocious,” he told Mr Maliki.
“I make no political point, but I don’t think they were playing the other team, I think they were playing a team back in Baghdad.”