Kurdistan Building New Army in Fight for Education

In its fight for education, the Kurdistan Region is building a new kind of army: It is educating more than 4,500 men and women abroad who are expected to become the backbone of a zooming economy.

“A significant proportion of these successful students has already returned to Kurdistan and began to make a palpable difference,” according to Dr Dlawer Ala'Aldeen, former higher education minister in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and one of the engineer’s behind the scholarship initiative.

“The scholarship programme (Human Capacity Development program) was by far one of the most strategic initiatives by the Kurdistan Regional Government,” said Ala'Aldeen, who was minister from 2009 until April last year, and is now a professor of clinical microbiology at the University of Nottingham.

In an interview with Rudaw, he said that more than 4,500 talented young men and women from the three-province autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq were awarded scholarships in open competition to study at reputable universities abroad.

“Besides, up to 30 percent of the scholarships went to women, something considered a cultural revolution,” said Ala'Aldeen, who was born in the town of Koya near Erbil and just turned 53.

When it gained autonomy in 1991, the Kurdistan Region inherited a failing system of governance and an economy in shambles due to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein’s many crackdowns against the Kurds. Until 1998, Iraq’s estimated five million Kurds also suffered in the geographical frontlines of Saddam’s devastating eight-year war with Iran as well as an internal conflict between Kurdish groups.

But since Saddam was ousted in the 2003 US-led invasion, the Kurds have been consolidating their autonomy and going from strength to strength.

Erbil is finalizing an historic pipeline deal for its first direct oil exports to Turkey and beyond, which is expected to shift the Kurdish economic boom into hyper-drive. Foreign investment – including some 50 international oil companies working on projects – is flowing in, and Kurdistan is already being called the “next Dubai.”

Flights from Europe and the Gulf come packed with passengers, among them returnee Kurds forced abroad by the decades of violence, foreigners working on projects or businessmen in search of new markets. Emirates airline reports record growth on its Dubai-Erbil route; the economy grew by a whopping eight percent last year.

To meet the needs of this dynamic environment, Ala'Aldeen says there is still much to be done.

“Our education system is lagging way behind. A strong economy cannot be sustained without being underpinned by armies of home-grown, well qualified professional leaders,” Ala'Aldeen said from Nottingham.

KRG representatives abroad are also involved in the effort to improve education back home in Kurdistan.

“It is fundamental to change the education system in Kurdistan,” agreed Khaman Zirar Asaad, the KRG representative in France. She said French institutions were helping with complementary school programs for “some after school cultural activities such as teaching civil rights, the acceptance of other cultures and the concept of democracy.”

“Under Saddam we had only one Kurdish university in Erbil and now we have some 25 public and private universities,” noted Rezan Kader, the KRG’s representative in Italy.

She added that many Italian universities are interested in collaborating with Kurdistan, and that there is a continuous exchange of students and teachers, as well as some Italian government scholarships for Kurdish students.

In Spain, KRG representative Daban Shadala said that universities in Kurdistan are even asking for Spanish professors.

“Last April, 32 Spanish universities and 11 rectors from Kurdistan met in Spain to discuss cooperation and some universities from Kurdistan are asking now to have some Spanish professors to teach there,” he told Rudaw.

In Britain, a destination of choice for Kurdish students because of the language and standard of education, 1,500 Kurdish students have gone through English universities since the scholarship program began, said Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman, the KRG representative in the United Kingdom.

During Ala’Aldeen’s remake of Kurdish education, the KRG injected more than $200 million in higher education institutions to improve infrastructure and equipment. With good humor, the former minister remembers the battles he had to fight for change.

“As predicted, there were numerous barriers for progress. There were great many interest groups, who had benefited immensely from the old system and refused to get on board,” he said. “The anti-reform lobby succeeded in slowing down the reform after we left.”

“Our ministry attracted the greatest number of demonstrations whose demands were invariably illegal or inappropriate,” Ala’Aldeen recalled. “One of these demonstrations turned into a three-month-long vigil, with tents erected opposite the ministry building. But we tolerated them until they finally faded away.”

All that, he said, is in the past. Most important now, he added, has been Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani’s emphasis on the reform program and a public pledge to re-energise and consolidate it in the near future.

“I think the media as well as the opposition parties like Gorran and the Islamic groups, who have a heavy presence these days, can play their significant roles in keeping the pressure on the government for further reforms, too,” Ala’Aldeen said.

“The gap between our needs and the reality remains wide. However, the good news is that the system is now heading in the right direction,” he observed.

There are still teething problems: Many returnees complain they cannot find government jobs that meet their advanced educational levels or that when they do find work many times their skills are too advanced for their workplace.

In the coveted government jobs, there are complaints that colleagues with a local education often see fellow Kurds educated abroad as a threat, creating problems at work.

Nevertheless Miran, a 30-year-old Kurd studying for a postgraduate degree in the Polytechnic University of Madrid, is ready to take his place in Kurdistan’s new army of educated professionals after finishing his studies.

“When I go back to Kurdistan to look for a job I am 100 percent certain that I will find one,” he told Rudaw.