Stones and apples for changing Kurdistan's universities

Stones and apples for changing Kurdistan's universities

By Mandy Garner

BBC Business News. 3 October, 2013

Prof Ala'Aldeen swapped the lecture hall for re-inventing the university system

Prof Dlawer Ala'Aldeen had tomatoes, stones and apples thrown at him. He faced countless demonstrations.

The reason for this hostility, facing the microbiologist from the University of Nottingham, was his controversial attempt to reform the university system in his birthplace of Kurdistan.

Prof Ala'Aldeen was the architect of plans to improve the quality and to internationalise higher education in Iraqi Kurdistan.

He says he was up against "deeply entrenched interests, people, institutions and long stagnant cultures".

The region, autonomous for two decades in the wake of the Gulf War, had inherited a post-Saddam university system that Prof Ala'Aldeen has described as "grossly outdated" and designed for a closed, centralised country.

In 2009 Prof Ala'Aldeen was given a secondment away from his job as professor of clinical microbiology at Nottingham University in the UK.

He stepped from academic life in the English midlands into the role of Kurdistan's higher education minister, a post he held until last year.

'Crisis of quality'

Prime Minister Barham Salih, a good friend, chose him for his knowledge of the higher education system and the series of critical articles on education and governance he had written in the years up to his appointment.

Barham Salih's election manifesto had included significant support for higher education and training to support Kurdistan's large population of under 20 year olds.

There were already plans for more scholarships to send talented students to study overseas.

Within a week of being appointed, Prof Ala'Aldeen had written up a radical vision document and it was quickly endorsed by the cabinet.

Higher education in Kurdistan was suffering a major crisis of quality, capacity and infrastructure.

There was a consensus in support of reform and it helped that Prof Ala'Aldeen had been very critical of the government in the past.

The reforms, which planned to improve the quality and accreditation of university teachers, brought considerable opposition from student and teacher organisations as well as businesses linked with the burgeoning market in private universities.

Several new private universities were threatened with closure, much to the anger of their staff and prospective students who had paid fees for their courses.

"Many teachers had been licensed prematurely. There were 11 private universities when I started with 18 more waiting to be opened. These mushrooming private colleges were relying on the same pool of resources as the public universities which lacked staff and facilities," Prof Ala'Aldeen says.

The problem of staffing was particularly acute in medicine, pharmacy and dentistry and in postgraduate studies.

Closed universities

But Prof Ala'Aldeen faced protests and opposition.

He was accused of trying to transplant the UK system onto Kurdistan, something he vehemently denies since he was educated and worked in his home region, before coming to study in the UK.