REAWAKENING Higher Education in Iraq

By Tobenkin, David | International Educator, November/December 2013 | Go to article overview

REAWAKENING Higher Education in Iraq


Tobenkin, David, International Educator


Higher education in Iraq suffered in the aftermath of U.S. military action, now U.S. colleges and universities are building partnerships to help rebuild higher education opportunities for Iraqis.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is the first in a two-part series about US. partnerships with iraq and Afghanistan to help revitalize higher education in those nations after US military presence.

IN 2010

Ball State University educator Kenneth Holland gave a talk to Iraqi educators and students on the importance of career centers, one focus of an educational partnership between U.S. and Iraqi universities in Baghdad. As he explained how such centers work in the United States, with, for example, companies coming on campus to interview students for jobs, a student raised her hand.

"She explained that in Iraq there is no private sector and you get your job through your tribal affiliation or your parent," says Holland, who is director of Ball State's Center for International Development. "While this wasn't entirely surprising to me, it showed just how different the process and standard procedures may be for universities in other nations to serve their students."

The Iraqi student's comment was a window into the chasm separating standard procedures at U.S. higher education institutions from the standards at Iraq institutions as the two worked to set up higher education cooperative partnerships intended to benefit both parties.

"Universities in Iraq don't have career centers, and we played a major role in introducing that to them," says Holland. "There also was no concept of student services. Most people worked for the government, and they were trained to work for government institutions. Most were told what they would major in and what their job would be and where. Everything was prescribed for the students."

"That has completely changed," Holland says. "At universities, students have more choice in what they major in."

Iraq has suffered from decades of isolation and war, capped by the U.S.-led invasions and control in 2003. Higher education was among the major casualties in the conflict, with personnel, infrastructure, and budgets depleted.

But partnerships between U.S. higher education institutions and organizations and their counterparts in Iraq formed in the last decade have proven a lifeline of support for their beleaguered academies.

The partnerships tend to be workshops or exchange programs between the United States and administrators, academics, and students from Iraq, many heavily subsidized by U.S. government organizations. Some aspects of the exchange programs tend to be one-way, with students and professors from Iraq tending to visit the United States far more than visits in the other direction. U.S. academics have also been heavily involved in staffing and supporting some of the new higher education institutions that have been created in recent years. In addition, scholarships to educate graduate students abroad funded by Iraqi government organizations are ramping up some exchanges.

Challenges Create Opportunities

If the challenges for partnerships between institutions in the United States and Iraq are greater than in partnerships involving more traditional exchange partners, there are arguably greater opportunities, too.

"In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq [in the north], there are 13 public and 10 private universities, and many are very new and have developed in the past five years," says Michelle Grajek, director for political and diplomatic affairs at the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), who helps administer scholarships from the KRG's Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research to students studying abroad. "U.S. universities really want to get involved now. It's a fantastic opportunity to build a relationship from the ground up, which can be easier."

With the withdrawal of United States troops from Iraq beginning in 2009 and ending in 2011, and with political turmoil and violence continuing to roil the country, the question remains as to whether seeds planted by exchanges will blossom into long-lasting partnerships and, significantly, whether U. …

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