Investing in quality 'to get on the same wavelength as the rest of the world'

Nottingham Post 13/3/2012

Investing in quality 'to get on the same wavelength as the rest of the world'

Nottingham Post, Tuesday, March 13, 2012

PROFESSOR Dlawer Ala'Aldeen's time as the minister for higher education in Kurdistan is about to come to an end. A new government has been elected and takes over soon.

At work: Professor Dlawer Ala'Aldeen with QMC patient.

But when he took the job in 2009, he says he was not entirely unknown to the people. "I had remained engaged with the people, students and staff throughout the 1990s so when I went as a minister, it wasn't as though I just appeared. I have been part of the picture for a long time."

There was a huge job to be done in higher education. His time in Nottingham had taught him how a well run university should function and the qualities demanded by national and international students.

In Iraq – and elsewhere in the Middle East – nepotism is firmly embedded in institutions of learning controlled by political masters. He needed to move quickly.

Education, and particularly higher education, barely had a benchmark to ensure intellectual quality. Kurdistan inherited a dated higher education system unchanged for more than a century and was no longer fit for purpose.

"Education in terms of quality and standards was deteriorating with hardly any system for ensuring quality. "Kurdistan had been neglected for decades by Saddam and only had a small university," said Del. Twenty years ago, the university in Arbil was not even big enough to cope with the demands from a city that size.

Del continued: "The Kurdistan government was faced with expanding the university and opening more. "In 2009, the prime minister asked me to look at higher education and where we should take it. Del and his colleagues moved quickly. There was a job to do.

"It was time to invest in quality and get on the same wavelength as the rest of the world, investing in human resources as well as the infrastructure.

"We established a modern model, unique in the Middle East and more in line with the rest of the world. "There was no system for teaching quality assurance, which is taken for granted in countries like Britain. "We piloted a system, it was well received and the following year we applied it across the board."

A new curriculum broke with the tradition of students just recording information. They had to learn to find information, research, think and debate. "We wanted them to be professional leaders when they left university rather than just a pair of hands.

"We made English the main language of science with Arabic for some of the humanities. "We made IT and the internet the main means for accessing information. That created the revolution.

"We made sure every scientist and every scientific department in Kurdistan was in direct contact with Centres of Excellence abroad." A major scholarship programme, backed by a fund of $100 million a year for four years, today sends students overseas to study for their Masters and PhDs.

A modern and transparent process selects the best students. Already 4,200 have been selected and a third are already overseas studying. More than 1,000 are in the UK at universities such as Nottingham. "When the students return, they will bring back networks, relationships, the latest science and technologies," said Del.

Also, those internal PhD students studying in Kurdistan's universities have to spend at least 18 months overseas at a centre of excellence.

"Joint projects and joint publications not only link our scientists to the rest of the world but increase the impact of their publications, their impact on science and impact on the community," said Del.

He has already broken the mould of Middle Eastern universities, micro managed by governments which virtually fully fund them and with no inclination to compete.

"We will make Kurdistan universities independent," said Del. "We are establishing boards of trustees and letting them make their own decisions – even if that means challenging the government on scientific issues. At the moment they can't do that."