The newsletter of United Nations University and its international 
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Issue 37: May - June 2005


Call for world aid to repair Iraq's devastated universities

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 by UN Nations University.

Iraq's academies were hit
hard by wartime looting.

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); and
  • 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 UNU International Leadership Institute. "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 UNU Rector Hans van Ginkel. "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," said Reddy. 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.

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.”

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. 

MEDIA COVERAGE: Kuwait News Agency | IPS | EFE | Folha de Sao Paolo

© 2005  United Nations University