World must play its part in rebirth of Iraqi academe

April 18, 2003

Refurbishing Iraq's university system will raise aspirations and encourage the free exchange of ideas, says John Daniel

Wars and geopolitical upheavals require repair of the social and material fabric of societies. Rebuilding higher education might seem less urgent than renewing the basic infrastructure of shelter and transport, but communities emerging from crisis take a different view. Functioning universities encourage individuals to raise their ambitions and symbolise a collective aspiration to be part of the global community of knowledge.

The fall of the Berlin Wall released intellectual energy as the new democracies of Europe transformed their universities. They renewed their commitment to the academic ideal, which Unesco's constitution articulates as "the unrestricted pursuit of objective truth and the free exchange of ideas and knowledge". It was an evolutionary process that emphasised intellectual rather than physical reconstruction. In this decade, the challenge is to rebuild the intellectual and material structures of universities after the overthrow of regimes by military force. Although the work to rebuild higher education in Afghanistan is still in its early stages, the international community is already turning its attention to Iraq. What must be done to renew Iraq's universities and who should do it?

Both conflicts are perceived as part of the war on terrorism, but postwar situations in Afghanistan and Iraq are different, particularly in higher education. Afghanistan had limited but good-quality higher education in the 1970s, but it then lost ground for 20 years until the Taliban virtually stopped it. Iraq had the best university system in the Arab world until 1990. Since then, sanctions have taken their toll, but today's degraded system still attracts many students from other Arab countries. Whereas the task in Afghanistan is one of reconstruction, in Iraq it might be better called refurbishment.

Iraq has 18 universities, nine technical colleges, 38 technical institutes and ten specialised research centres. These enrol 300,000 students and have nearly 15,000 academic staff. Mustansiriya, founded in 1280, was one of the world's first universities. Before the first Gulf war, the Iraqi government allocated funds generously to the development of higher education, some $1,000 (£636) per student per year. Institutions were well built and equipped, and many academic staff had graduate degrees from universities in the West and in the former Soviet bloc.

The system began to decline when sanctions were imposed soon after the first Gulf war. The Oil-for-Food humanitarian programme attempted to slow the decline by directing some funds to higher education, but this had different effects in the north and south of the country. In the centre-south, which is home to 61 of the 75 tertiary institutions, the programme was run by the Iraqi government and some $263 million worth of supplies were provided. Although an energetic building programme continued, the restrictions on the equipment that could be imported - designed to prevent military use - vitiated much of the effort. Orders for computer equipment, for example, were put on hold for two years, so the equipment was obsolete on arrival. Despite some alleviation of the difficulties, the decline continued.

However, in the 14 institutions in the northern governorates, where Unesco organised the programme, the development of the university system continued. Enrolment increased by 76 per cent and the institutions are visibly undergoing modernisation with some $176 million from the programme.

This has paid for building rehabilitation, equipment, library materials, technical infrastructure and staff training.

Now that the United Nations has reinstated the Oil-for-Food programme, it should be possible to renew all of Iraq's higher education system fairly rapidly now that the war is all but over - provided funds are allocated.

The way that expenditure is approved to avoid purchases being diverted to military use creates a necessarily restrictive bureaucratic framework that means that contracting formalities are rudimentary and the Iraqi beneficiaries have little power to oblige contractors to fulfil their obligations. It will be possible to spend the Oil-for-Food funds more quickly and effectively once a new Iraqi regime is no longer subject to such restrictions. There will, of course, be plenty of scope for other countries and individual universities to provide bilateral help through twinning or other arrangements, as is happening in Afghanistan. Indeed, since the refurbishment of higher education in Iraq is a more straightforward proposition than its reconstruction in Afghanistan, Unesco hopes that partner countries will continue to support Afghanistan even as they offer a helping hand to Iraq.

Sir John Daniel is Unesco's assistant director-general for education.

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