Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Higher Education in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq - Part I

By Salman Ahmed Rasul 
                                 AUIS Campus 

This article is the first of a two part special report on higher education in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.

The system of higher education in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq faces a lot of challenges and problems. The quality of the system in general, in terms of conducting scientific and high quality research has been criticized by the local media, public opinion, and many international media platforms. Even some high governmental officials of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) have admitted to the existence of the low quality system, including Dlawer Abdul-Aziz Ala'Aldeen himself, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research.

The local media, both independent and Kurdish political media have revealed that academic qualifications and the role of the universities are under question in the region. Major problems are the absence of complete academic freedom, suppression of freedom of speech, and political charges and interference of politicians over the public and private universities.

However, there has been plenty of excellent progress in improving higher education quality since Barham Salih, Prime Minister of KRG, appointed Ala'Aldeen as the Minister. Despite insurmountable political barriers and struggles, they both are truly continuing to make a lot of efforts to reform extensively. Having said that, from the quality standpoint, the KRG’s Human Capacity Development Program (HCDP) which awards scholarships to graduate students to study abroad, and the opening of new universities in Raparin, Halabja, Zakho, and Garmyan are two immensely popular achievements of his cabinet.

Ala'Aldeen does not conceal encountering difficulties and radical changes. "Reform of Higher Education and Scientific Research in Kurdistan is a big challenge that requires a clear vision and a well thought out road map. Here, the top level strategies mentioned are to provide a frame work for the Ministry’s future activities, and to generate lively debates in the academic community. The issues are complex and the challenge is enormous, however, these are not overwhelmingly so. We shall brain-storm every milestone, and with the determination and hard work of the academic leaders, we shall move from one milestone to another.” Ala'Aldeen wrote a vision and strategy titled "A Vision to the Future of Higher Education in Kurdistan” which was published on the official website of the ministry on November 8, 2009.

Besides the lack of practical sessions, logical arguments, discussions and training, lecturing is the main priority and common technique of teaching in the majority of the professors.

Thomas Hill, clinical assistant professor at New York University's Center for Global Affairs, who has been working, conducting research, monitoring and leading discussions and workshops with professors and students at the universities throughout the Kurdistan Region for 11 years, exposed the biggest obstacles of the universities. He criticized the way that professors teach and lecture.

"I know that all of the public universities struggle with issues related to financial resources and developing modern facilities,” he said. "To me, however, the biggest issue facing the universities in the Kurdistan Region is finding ways to encourage new and more effective methods of learning, teaching and research. Lecturing is still the primary method used by most professors, even though it has been demonstrated that adults, even young adults learn most effectively when more interactive approaches to education are used.”

Hill also encouraged students alongside the professors to be more responsible and active. "Students in the Kurdistan Region also have to take greater responsibility for being active learners. One way they can do this is by undertaking more rigorous research.”

Furthermore, Hill admitted that it is not an easy process to work on large collections of books and research for the universities here, but there are still other ways to achieve increasing knowledge. "I understand that it is still very difficult for the universities to develop large collections of books in their libraries, but there are other forms of research that can be utilized, such as exploring reputable scholarly materials available on the internet and conducting field research in their communities that can help develop knowledge for the communities as well as for the student researchers.”

Hill was generally speaking about public universities. To know about major problems of private universities, Athanasios Moulakis, President and Provost of the American University of Iraq Sulaimani (AUIS), indicated the difficulties that they face. While MoHESR ranked AUIS as the top university among the private universities in the Kurdistan Region, it is still not far from several problems, even so distinct problems. At least, it cannot prevent difficulties that come up from improving things at the margin.

Moulakis said they have to keep all the balls in the air at the same time which is inevitable. "Most of the difficulties we face are connected to our being a very young institution. In well established institutions you can content yourself with improving things at the margin. In a "start-up” you have to keep all the balls in the air at the same time, obviously you will drop some. AUIS has, however, been making very rapid progress and we look forward to the future with confidence and high hopes.”

Unlike the public universities, AUIS attempts to eliminate the financial crisis by raising funds from different sources such as donations from local and international companies, businessmen, and student tuition fees. Moulakis clearly stated that "As a private non-profit institution AUIS must raise the funds needed for its operation.”

"Charging fees is, of course, something of a challenge in a country accustomed to state institutions that provide higher education for free – or, more exactly at public expense,” Moulakis added, "The enormous support we have received from individuals, businesses and civil society in the region and beyond is an excellent sign that we can look forward to continued material and moral support as we grow stronger in the service of the people of this region.” 

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