United Nations University calls for world help to repair Iraqi higher education system

04/25/05

Analysis: 5/6ths of Iraq's higher learning institutions burnt, looted, wrecked; 48 profs slain

'Commission for Higher Education' in Iraq proposed to guide reconstruction

Since the start of the war of 2003 some 84% of Iraq's higher education institutions have been burnt, looted or destroyed while four dozen academics have been assassinated and many more brave daily threats, according to an analysis of the system's reconstruction needs released today by the United Nations University.

In addition to destruction of infrastructure (just 40% of which is now under reconstruction) and ongoing security dangers, problems plaguing Iraq's higher learning system include:

  • Unreliable safe water and electricity supplies;
  • Emigration of Iraq's best-trained educators to other countries (an estimated 30-40% have fled since 1990);
  • Long-isolated and under-qualified teaching staff (33% hold only bachelors degrees, despite rules requiring a masters degree; 39% hold masters degrees, 28% hold PhDs);
  • Poorly equipped libraries and labs (2,000 labs need to be equipped; 30,000 computers are needed nationwide);
  • A fast-growing student population due to the high birthrate and a policy to admit any successful secondary school graduate.

The Iraqi Academy of Sciences, founded in 1948 to promote the Arabic language and heritage, saw its digital and traditional library partially looted during the war. The Academy alone needs almost $1 million in infrastructure repairs to reestablish itself as a leading research centre.

"The devastation of the Iraqi system of higher education has been overlooked amid other cataclysmic war results but represents an important consequence of the conflicts, economic sanctions and ongoing turmoil in Iraq," says the paper's author Dr. Jairam Reddy, Director of the UNU International Leadership Institute in Amman, Jordan. "Repairing Iraq's higher education system is in many ways a prerequisite to the long term repair of the country as a whole."

"The bravery and dedication of educators who remain in a shattered Iraq should inspire the swift, meaningful and practical support of the international academic community," says UN Under Secretary-General Hans van Ginkel, Rector of the Tokyo-based UNU. "Working with UNESCO and its other partners, UNU is well positioned and anxious to help restore the Iraqi higher education system to its rich historic role and standards of excellence."

Iraq's higher education system "has been severely damaged and is out of step with international norms and standards," according to UNU-ILI Director Reddy, a national of South Africa and former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Durban Westville (1990-1994).

His proposal for a National Commission on Higher Education in Iraq would be modeled on previous commissions in several countries, including post-apartheid South Africa, to help undertake a full review and transformation of the nation's higher education system. It would comprise officials, academics, students and, given the country's recent isolation, carefully selected international academics, to define:

  • The values to underpin a newly restored higher education system such as, potentially, equity, democracy, human rights, autonomy and academic freedom;
  • Mediation and regulation of State University relations;
  • An affordable, realistic participation rate for the higher education system, and the number of universities needed to ensure quality, efficiency and effectiveness;
  • Funding issues, including the percentage of Gross National Product that should be devoted to higher education, the proportion of costs to be covered by student fees, and support for students unable to pay;
  • How to ensure and enhance the quality of universities potentially through a national quality assurance body;
  • Whether and how to regulate the nascent private higher education system and assure its quality;
  • The role of open / distance education and e-learning;
  • How to rejuvenate and fund research to contribute to the pressing challenges of post-conflict reconstruction.

"Hopefully such an exercise can be conducted in an open, transparent manner with the full support of all stakeholders," says Dr. Reddy. The needed result is "a framework or blueprint that is owned by the government, institutions and other stakeholders and within which the systematic, incremental and progressive reconstruction of the higher education system can unfold."

He noted that, at a recent two-day roundtable at UNESCO in Paris, 120 delegates, including Iraqi academics and education officials, discussed immediate and long term reconstruction needs and transformation of the country's higher learning system. During the meeting, Georges Haddad, Head of Higher Education at UNESCO, proposed:

  • A database of Iraqi academics in other countries;
  • Connection of Iraq's higher education system to international networks;
  • Participation of Iraqis in upcoming international academic meetings;
  • A workshop in Amman on Iraqi university student life;
  • Training for Iraqis in university governance and management;
  • Chairs at Iraqi universities in such disciplines as engineering, medicine, teacher training, distance education; and
  • An association of Iraq's university presidents and rectors.

Iraq's Deputy Minister of Higher Education told the meeting the ultimate goal of reconstruction efforts is "to ensure quality higher education marked by gender parity, the separation of state and religion, mindful of the values of democracy and human rights."

Iraq's tradition of distinguished universities

Until the wars and sanctions of the 1990s, Iraq had "a long, proud tradition of distinguished universities," Dr. Reddy says, beginning with the University of Baghdad in 1957. Five more were established in the 1960s in Baghdad (two), Basra, Mosul and Sulaymaniah. The subsequent creation of several technical institutes reflected high oil industry demands for qualified technicians.

In the last 20 years, 14 new universities were founded under a policy of establishing at least one in each Iraqi governorate. Iraq today has 20 universities and 47 technical institutes under the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MHESR). There are also 10 private colleges offering computer sciences, business administration, economics and management.

According to a recent UNESCO survey, total student enrollment exceeds 250,000 (42% women). University academic staff members number just over 19,000 (44% women).

There 24 colleges training secondary school teachers, seven for primary / kindergarten teachers and seven for physical education teachers.

Major fields of study offered at Iraqi universities: education, arts, law, social sciences, administration, economics, natural sciences, engineering and technology, medical sciences, veterinary medicine and agriculture. Under recent economic sanctions, computer importations were restricted and related training was highly limited.

While in pre-war days, Iraqi scientists were publishing widely in international and regional journals, very few articles were published in the last decade.

Despite formidable problems, progress and improvements have been made to Iraq's higher education system, says Dr. Reddy. The subjects of democracy, human rights and antiterrorism have been included in the curricula. There is no dedicated budget for higher education but the ad hoc amount allocated has increased from $40 million in 2003 to nearly $70 million in 2005, enabling teachers' salaries to increase from $1,000 to $1,500 a month.

Teacher upgrading has been supported by UNESCO and the World Bank; 4,300 new university jobs have been created; 40% of destroyed buildings have been reconstructed through the existing budget. A student's union has been formed in each college and a new law governs student elections based on freedom and democratic principles.

An International Fund for Higher Education in Iraq, initiated in 2003 by the First Lady of Qatar, has received smaller donations from the Qatar National Bank, South Korea and Doha National Bank.

"It is vital that these funds be augmented substantially by the international community in order for the reconstruction and rejuvenation of the Iraqi higher education system to proceed unimpeded," says Dr. Reddy.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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