KURDISTAN: A higher education revolution that cannot fail

Kurdistan: A higher education revolution that cannot fail

Professor Dlawer Ala'Aleen

University World News; 20 February 2011 Issue No:159

Kurdistan, like the rest of Iraq, has long been isolated from modern science and learning. We need to reconnect with the world and for our scientists and science departments to link up with their counterparts abroad. In December we held an international conference to encourage academics from around the world to visit Kurdistan with the aim of getting them to invest in joint projects, co-supervise our students and accommodate our students and staff, who would be fully funded to study abroad.

Academics came from all parts of the world. More than 40 people came from the US, 35 from the UK, the Turkish Minister of Education and four presidents of Turkish universities were present, as were academics from Germany, Scandinavia, Canada and France as well as neighbouring countries like Iran and Jordan. Malaysia was represented and, as a result, the Malaysian higher education minister is visiting Kurdistan at the end of this month.

We have invested a lot of effort into reforming the higher education system in Kurdistan to make it more internationally competitive. Last year, for instance, we initiated a new scholarship programme. The government is to spend $100 million a year on sending young students abroad on masters and PhD studies. Some 1,500 scholarship awards were made late last year and a greater number will be awarded this year.

We have also reformed our internal PhD pathways, to include a stipulation that students need to study abroad for at least 18 months. Historically, our PhDs used to be done in three years with the first year devoted to didactic teaching in the style of a masters course and the last two years spent on research.

This is not adequate if we are to compete internationally. Moreover, our academics had spent two decades in isolation from the rest of the world and were not self-sufficient enough to nurture future academic stars. We needed a radical reform so we increased the PhD to four years of full-time research. Six months of the 18 months abroad will be spent on improving their language skills and one-year minimum must be spent on research in an international centre of excellence.

Academics will also be given sabbatical leave to go abroad. Students and academics need to be connected internationally and form international networks if they are to have their research published in high-impact journals. Until now Iraq has not been on the map for its research output. That has to change.

This focus on connecting with the international academic world is just one part of the Kurdistan Regional Government's roadmap for improving our higher education system. Higher education reform is a top priority for our government.

The roadmap covers a wide range of areas such as teaching, research, management, social justice and health and safety. It includes plans to increase the quality and quantity of higher education in Kurdistan. Our first university, the University of Sulaimaniyah, was set up in 1968 but it was very small and not sufficient in size or quality to respond to the needs of a population of four million.

Since the regional government was set up in 1992, 10 additional universities have opened. Altogether we are experiencing an exponential boom in the number of universities in the region. Now we are focusing on increasing their quality.

Since the first Gulf War, we have not been able to send students and academics abroad. Even before that very few people from Kurdistan were sent abroad by the previous regime for obvious political reasons. We were isolated through wars and blockades and also systematically denied the right to study abroad and denied the ability to create a future generation of professionals.

We have also introduced a teaching quality assurance (TQA) programme. There has never been any formal or comprehensive TQA process in Iraq before, even though it is the bread and butter of university systems elsewhere. We piloted a new TQA system from April to July last year and it has now been universally applied.

We are developing the curriculum to promote skills like critical thinking and learning a second language. We have introduced performance indicators for teaching staff so they have to spend 50 hours a year giving or attending seminars or publishing academic papers as part of their continuous academic development. It is a novel scheme and it has set departments buzzing with activity.

This year we are turning our attention to reforming university management. We want to make our universities completely independent.

In Iraq the government micromanages the university system, making all senior appointments and overseeing the budget. We want to create the structures necessary for universities to self-govern. We want to create boards of trustees and senates and get rid of the unnecessary duplication of departments.

It is not an easy task and there has been opposition from those who stand to lose privileges and benefits. We are trying to overhaul a system that has been run a certain way for a century, but we are making progress - last year many people were ambivalent about the changes we proposed, but now around 70% support them.

In the next two to four months we plan to create boards and senates and we plan to pass a higher education law to make this process irreversible. Under the existing higher education law the government controls all aspects of higher education. There is hardly any incentive for universities to compete in the market for excellence.

A draft of the law is ready and we hope to pass it before the end of the current parliamentary session. We want to make universities independent financially, academically and managerially. We want to enable them to generate their own income, offer their services and invest in their own infrastructure.

It is a radical change. We do not have the luxury of time to change the system through gradual evolution. That would take decades and might lead to only small incremental change. The new higher education model in Kurdistan will be unique to the Middle East. It is an experiment that has to work. Failure is not an option.

* Professor Dlawer Abdul-Aziz Ala'Aleen is the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research in the Kurdistan Regional Government. He was in conversation with Mandy Garner ofUniversity World News.

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