From the UK’s HE minister to university life in Kurdistan

Bill Rammell explains how serving as the UK’s HE minister led him on to a v-c’s path, and ultimately to being president of the University of Kurdistan Hewlêr

November 25, 2022
Iraqi Kurdish student
Source: Getty

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Even a proud openness towards and experience of different countries, cultures and people can never totally equip you for working on the ground in a wholly different culture.

I was no stranger to higher education when I took up the role of president at the University of Kurdistan Hewlêr (UKH) in Iraqi Kurdistan just over a year ago. I used my period as an MP in the UK Parliament to focus on education, including spending four years as minister for higher education (HE). Highlights included leading the Prime Minister’s Initiative for the Globalisation of Higher Education and launching the UK-India Education and Research Initiative. I also worked on both education and the Middle East in my four-year stint as a minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which made ending up in Iraqi Kurdistan no coincidence.

Despite serving in government, it is the year I spent in Paris teaching English, as part of my French degree at Cardiff University, that I see as one of the most formative experiences of my life. HE is such a global sector, which I’m proud to still be a part of.

After leaving Parliament in 2010 (at the behest of the electorate!), I proved this by becoming deputy vice-chancellor for internationalisation at the University of Plymouth. After that, I was vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire (one of the biggest recruiters of international students) for eight years, leading on transnational educational partnerships.

Running through all of this was a very strong belief in and commitment to the internationalisation of HE. So, joining UKH as president was, in a sense, a natural progression.

But this didn’t mean that I was fully prepared for the opportunities and challenges of leading a university in Iraqi Kurdistan, and broader Iraq.

However, I did know from the word go that Iraqi Kurdistan has real opportunity and potential. Some 30 to 40 million Kurds live in Syria, Iran, Turkey and Iraq, sharing a history of oppression and discrimination. Much of this occurred at the hands of Saddam Hussein, who launched 39 separate gas attacks against the Iraqi Kurds, infamously and horrifically gassing 5,000 people in Halabja, mostly women and children. But only in Iraqi Kurdistan have the 6 million Kurds achieved some form of stable government.

Iraq’s 2005 constitution recognised an autonomous federal Kurdistan region in the north, run by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which made huge economic progress between when I first visited as a minister in 2008 and my summer 2021 arrival as UKH president.

This followed the heroic efforts of the Peshmerga in defeating the violent thugs of Isis. However, Kurdistan is beset by ongoing tensions with Baghdad about revenue sharing and constitutional rights.

But Kurdistan stands out in Iraq and the broader Middle East as an exemplar of tolerance, and ethnic and religious respect, and as a force for progress. And HE is seen as part and parcel of that.

Kurdistan has strong relations with the West, certainly including the UK. In part because, counterintuitively for the many opponents in the UK and West more broadly, the Iraq War is seen in Kurdistan as a liberation from Saddam Hussein, for which there is tangible gratitude.

This was relayed to me many times during my time in Kurdistan. And the KRG very much wants strong links with UK HE.

The HE sector in Kurdistan has expanded rapidly in the past two decades, and there are now some 18 universities in existence. UKH, for instance, was founded in 2006 by Nechirvan Barzani (who was then prime minister and is now president), with the noble aim of educating the future leaders of Kurdistan. It has made significant progress – as has, of course, HE across Kurdistan.

But it does face ongoing challenges, which have to be resolved if sustainable progress is to be made and real, lasting partnerships with UK universities are to be established.

When I was the UK’s HE minister, from 2005 to 2008, I was always strongly advised by officials that one of the virtues of UK HE was institutional university autonomy, granting institutions with strong leadership the ability to shape their path and achieve excellence.

By and large, I think that this view is correct and part of the reason that UK HE is so successful and highly regarded internationally.

By contrast, genuine university autonomy in Kurdistan and the rest of Iraq remains light years away. One of the legacies of Saddam is a sclerotic, bureaucratic, stifling, straitjacketed system of top-down control (or attempt at control) on the part of both Kurdistan and the Iraqi federal government. And this is despite leaders – the prime minister and president – genuinely wishing for greater university freedom and autonomy. The bureaucracy thus far will simply not allow it. I witnessed and experienced first-hand numerous examples of this.

The federal Iraqi government accreditation process focused on names of departments, the location of air-conditioning units, signs on buildings and the qualifications of staff but seemed uninterested in any process of quality assurance. And a jockeying between the HE ministry in Baghdad and Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, delayed the outcome by more than a year (though it was successful in the end).

The KRG equalisation council drives rigid and inflexible pre-entry SAT and GPA requirements, limiting and restricting the ability of universities to innovate and broaden participation in HE. And the council is beset by whim and caprice, such as changing entry requirements for medicine degrees at the last minute, potentially reducing an intake at a university from 100 to just a handful.

I also saw first-hand how a commitment to reform from the top was obstructed. School of Medicine graduates have to work as residents in public hospitals to achieve post-graduation employment, but this has financial implications for the KRG. So, despite a clear direction from the prime minister for this to happen, it was obstructed and restricted to a year-by-year commitment by officials lower down the system.

Even within universities, there are real challenges in governance. I don’t relish saying that many members of governing bodies are not sufficiently equipped with understanding and experience of HE, and more often owe their positions to wasta (which translates as nepotism or patronage), an endemic blight on reform in Kurdistan and throughout Iraq. They see their role as micromanagement rather than strategy and accountability.

But there are grounds for optimism for the future and for progress. The leaders of the KRG are genuinely committed to reform.

Most recently, the Council of Ministers in the KRG, at the urging of the prime minister (advised by UK academic leaders), voted to approve a law establishing the Kurdistan Accrediting Association for Education. This will establish standards of quality assurance for academic institutions and programmes, and evaluate compliance of these through a well-defined mechanism of self-study and peer review in accordance with best practice. Much was drawn from the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education model.

The key will be restricting interference from the education ministries and genuinely liberating universities as self-governing institutions. There is also real ambition to grow research capacity and capability, with some funding attached.

So, against the background of this political landscape, there remains grounds for optimism, and I wish the whole process well. I hope that UK universities and HE leaders do engage in Kurdistan. It deserves our support – but not from the faint-hearted!

Bill Rammell is a former UK higher education minister, vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and president of the University of Kurdistan Hewlêr in Iraqi Kurdistan. He is now president of Zoom Abroad in the UK.


Print headline: Challenges near and far

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