A determined push for higher education progress in Kurdistan

A determined push for higher education progress in Kurdistan

Dlawer Ala'Aldeen

University World News, 17 June 2012 Issue No:226

The new post-Saddam Iraq inherited a stagnant and grossly outdated higher education system that was originally developed to suit a highly centralised country, with a closed market and little hope of achieving a higher standard of living.

Reform of higher education across the whole of Iraq is now urgently required in order to harmonise an antiquated system with the needs of the populace for highly skilled professionals.

The Kurdistan region

It has been just 20 years since the Kurdistan region of Iraq gained self-rule from Baghdad and started a protracted process of nation building. Despite scarce resources and difficult political circumstances, the Kurdistan region’s achievements in sustaining stability, developing infrastructure and attracting inward investment have been remarkable.

These exciting developments are just the beginning. They must be underpinned by serious investment in human capacity and higher standards in the fields of science, technology and management.

Successive Kurdistan regional governments have made serious efforts to invest in higher education institutions. The initial challenge was to expand institutional capacities and accommodate increasing numbers of school-leavers in universities.

In 1992, the Kurdistan region had only one small university with the capacity to accept around 1,500 new students a year – hardly sufficient to cater for 4.5 million people.

Since then, expansion has been exponential, with 19 public and private universities currently operational in the region, accommodating nearly 100,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students in total.

With such explosion in quantity comes the need to focus on quality, hence the need for higher education reform.

The last Kurdistan regional government’s cabinet (October 2009 to April 2012) made higher education reform and investment in human capacity a top priority and was the reason why Dr Barham Salih, then prime minister-elect, invited me to join his cabinet.

Revolution not evolution

Within a week of joining the Kurdistan regional government, I submitted a vision document and a long-term strategic plan to the newly formed cabinet. This strategy won the president's and the prime minister’s wholehearted support, and in due course won the support of ruling and opposition parties alike.

A roadmap was drawn up with clear milestones. Several pilot experiments were conducted during the first academic year (2009-10), and their results paved the way for universal application in the subsequent year.

As a consequence, we established Iraq’s first Teaching Quality Assurance and Accreditation scheme; modernised curricula with an emphasis on self-learning, critical thinking, developing IT skills and learning international languages; initiated a continuous academic development programme for faculty; and defined key performance indicators for annual teacher portfolio assessments.

The internal PhD pathway was changed from three-year classical training (one year of didactic teaching and two years of part-time research, hardly sufficient to turn students into scientists) to four-year split-site training whereby students conduct a significant part of their research in a centre of excellence abroad. All PhD students must publish in high-impact international journals.

Four new public universities were inaugurated, along with a historic US$100 million-a-year Human Capacity Development Programme, the prime minister’s key initiative.

By 2012, more than 4,000 graduates had been awardedscholarships to study for masters and PhDs in international universities. In parallel, US$200 million was invested in infrastructure and campus building for new and existing universities.

Quality and efficiency measures were introduced for public universities, with an emphasis on academic output, scientific collaboration and cost effectiveness. Universities were prepared for total financial, administrative and academic independence, with senates and boards of trustees planned for the intermediate future.

Other milestones achieved were in the field of human rights and social justice. Ministerial regulations were issued to enforce equal opportunities, gender equality and health and safety. Finally, inter- and intra-institutional communications and student application systems were transformed by investment in e-government and internet facilities.


Obviously, the two years were barely long enough to bring the reform to full fruition. But the foundation for a modern and evolving higher education system was laid. A white paper (draft legislation) incorporating these changes was submitted to the regional parliament.

Importantly, current Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani and his deputy, Emad Ahmed, have promised unreserved commitment to sustaining and further developing the reform programme, and members of the parliamentary committee for education and higher education have also pledged enthusiastic support for the new draft legislation.


Needless to say, the path to reform is never smooth or straightforward. The ride, as expected, was bumpy. The new clashed with the old, and conflicts of interest had to be tackled head-on.

Several underperforming yet high profit-making private universities and smaller colleges had to be closed down or prevented from opening.

Some adversary interest groups, particularly those with access to power or influence and politically affiliated student groups, spared no effort in derailing the reform process.

But these groups eventually faded into the background. Clarity, transparency, focus and utter determination proved vital in winning over the public and moving from one milestone to another.

* Professor Dlawer Ala’Aldeen is the former minister of higher education and scientific research in the Kurdistan regional government, Iraq, and is currently professor of clinical microbiology at Nottingham University in the United Kingdom