8 December 2010

Rebuilding the Iraqi higher education system

By Dr Riadh Al-Mahaidi

Malaysian and Australian universities are in an ideal position to help rebuild Iraq’s education system, which has suffered substantially following three decades of wars and sanctions.

The higher education and research infrastructure of Iraq not only suffered after the war of 2003 but continues to face the cumulative effects of three decades of mismanagement, political indoctrination, and corruption of academic ethics.

As a consequence, many Iraqi universities regressed or were frozen in terms of development. The last humiliating act in the long process of erosion was the looting and destruction that occurred following the 2003 war.

The sequence of devastations inflicted on Iraqi universities transformed what was perhaps the most respected and well-developed higher education and research system in the Middle East to a shadow of its former self. The University of Baghdad, as an example, was known as the Harvard of the Middle East.

For most of the past three decades, Iraqi higher education institutions faced fundamental problems in being cut off from any significant international contact.

What this meant practically was the suspension of library subscriptions to academic journals and the acquisition of new books as well as having to train students and conduct research using outdated laboratory and computing equipment. In addition, travel abroad for faculty members and students was extremely restricted.

During the 80s and 90s, the well-established universities in Baghdad and provincial centres were neglected to the benefit of ad hoc elite institutions which were lavished with resources and staffed with the best academics in Iraq. The intent was to supply the state with a loyal class of highly educated and competent technocrats.

The current higher education system in Iraq is comprised of 23 major public universities and 43 technical institutes and colleges. At the start of the 2009 – 2010 academic year, these institutions had more than 280,000 students with nearly 14,900 full-time academic staff.

In five visits to Iraq over the past 24 months and in discussions with higher education delegations which visited Australia, I found that in spite of all the adversities and instead of despairing, staff and students remain remarkably upbeat and optimistic. They expressed deep interest to link up with academics abroad and to establish joint research and supervision programs of higher degree students.

Over the last two years, the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research and its counterpart in the Iraqi Kurdistan region started serious reviews of the existing system.

They recognised that the current system is stagnant, out of date and suffers from many hurdles.

The reviews identified the causes that lead to the decline in higher education quality in general and scientific research in particular.

The two ministries embraced a road map to improve quality and raise standards in both higher education and scientific research. The key action items in the road map are the linking of all research-active academics in Iraq with their counterparts in centres of excellence around the world and the sending abroad of thousands of students to obtain masters and PhD degrees in all fields of study. The office of the Iraqi Prime Minister last year announced an ambitious scholarship program to send abroad 10,000 postgraduate students.

Australian and Malaysian universities, with their global focus and their internationally recognised role in advancing research in various fields, are ideally suited to help revive Iraq’s university system and rebuild its skills base by training students and staff who now represent the future of their country.

In this regard and as an example, Swinburne University of Technology has signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research to host up to 80 Iraqi scholarship students per year.

Under the agreement, Swinburne will provide research training on-campus for masters and PhD students undertaking their studies in Iraq and will conduct joint research with Iraqi post-doctoral fellowship recipients. Other items discussed were exchange of faculty members and students, joint cultural programs, assistance in curriculum development and short courses for professional development.

Through such programs, Australian and Malaysian universities have a unique opportunity to expand their global vision in helping rebuild the Iraqi higher education system – an opportunity that should be embraced.

Dr Riadh Al-Mahaidi is a Professor of Structural Engineering at Swinburne University of Technology, Melbourne and President of the Australian Iraqi Forum.