US to take lead in 'modernising' Iraq

June 20, 2003

US universities are to dominate efforts to rebuild Iraq's neglected and war-ravaged higher education sector, with a market-led outlook. The US Agency for International Development (USAid) this month asked US universities to submit bids for a $30 million scheme designed to "invigorate and modernise" Iraq's colleges and universities.

But UK universities are barred from submitting applications and the Foreign Office has been unable to identify any higher education initiatives by the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, which is concentrating on opening schools and repairing other infrastructure.

Applications for the USAid programme must be submitted by the end of the month, and 12 universities have attended a pre-bid meeting in Washington.

Up to six US universities or consortia, which can include non-US institutions, will then be chosen.

The initiative will focus on:

* Replacement of antiquated equipment and rehabilitation of educational and library facilities

* Promotion of national, regional and international partnerships and the fostering of intellectual diversity and growth

* "Innovative" subject material and new courses to develop the quality of higher education and to prepare Iraqi youth for leadership and employment in a competitive market economy

* Modern administrative practices that "orient higher education institutions to the demands of the market".

But Iraqi academics heavily qualified their welcome for the scheme. Adel Hussain, a former Iraqi college lecturer now working in Jordan, said: "We are pleased that America wants to help us make a new start, but dismissing all teachers and administrative staff who were in the Ba'ath party will leave a huge hole. And unless the Americans can restore law and order, the whole programme will be a waste of time."

The guidelines recommended that specialised committees be set up to tackle different university curricula but former opposition leaders, now in Baghdad, said they had yet to be consulted. Reconstruction will take place against the background of the wider de-Ba'athification programme. The CPA was vetting academics elected as rectors or deans for Ba'athist connections or suspicion of human-rights abuses.

USAid expected benefits would be reciprocal, "strengthening Iraqi universities while enriching US universities with respect to the culture of Iraqi higher education and related development issues". Knowledge of the social, political and economic circumstances of the Arab region and Iraq in particular, and a demonstrated ability to build bridges across ethnic, religious and other fault lines are among selection criteria.

USAid said that Iraq's universities were weakened under Saddam Hussein's regime and devastated following the 1991 Gulf War. "The neglect of higher education created long-term shortages of qualified teachers and manpower, vital for the country's future reconstruction and development while a significant number of engineers, doctors, and skilled professionals have left Iraq. Official Iraqi statistics show that 4,000 university professors have left due to economic hardships and internal oppression. Those who remain accept less skilled employment, with many requiring two or three jobs to augment their needed income."

The British Council is ready to reopen its office in Baghdad once security is restored. Prior to its closure in 1991, more than 1,500 Iraqi postgraduates a year attended UK universities and the council is keen to return to that level.

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