Former Kurdistan Minister: ‘I Consider Every KRG Government as My Own’

Dr. Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, professor of clinical microbiology at Britain’s Nottingham University and former Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), is undoubtedly among the most qualified and able Iraqi Kurds in the world. As minister, from 2009 to April last year, Ala’Aldeen was involved in rebuilding Kurdistan’s devastated universities and institutes of higher learning. In an interview with Rudaw Ala’Aldeen, who just turned 53 last month, recalled the tremendous changes that the ministry pioneered during his tenure, the opposition kicked up by vested interests who did not want change, and how what was done then is already bearing fruit, with an army of Kurdish students sent abroad on government scholarships beginning to return to form the backbone of the economy. Here is a transcript of his interview:

RUDAW: Is improving education especially important for the Kurdish Region, where so many are rising from the ashes of wars, poverty and persecutions?

The answer is yes, of course. For too long we were denied the opportunity to build our nation, invest in our people and secure a prosperous future for our children. Even when we finally became free in 1991, we inherited a failing system of governance and an almost non-existing economy. We endured a harsh political environment, a series of regional wars and a devastating internal civil war. Fortunately, these are now behind us, and we have a lifetime opportunity to make up for the past and put Kurdistan Region on the global political map.

RUDAW: Do you think Kurdish society is going at a faster pace than its educational system. And if so, how do you think a delay in improving the educational system will affect economic growth in Kurdistan?

The economy is fast growing and the society is fast evolving, whereas 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. The gap between our needs and the reality remain wide. However, the good news is that the system is now heading in the right direction.

RUDAW: How would you describe the current system of education in Iraq and Kurdistan?

We inherited a system that was designed for a centralised country, run by a dictator. It is not compatible with Kurdistan’s economic and political aspirations. It is grossly out of date, and as a consequence, our graduates are not sufficiently competitive in the local or international labour market, and investors are increasingly reliant on imported skilled workers. This has worsened the unemployment problem. This is why we in the Government (between 2009-2012) invested heavily in quality of education, human capacity, and infrastructure.

RUDAW: Do you think the Human Capacity Development Program, (HCDP) which awarded study-abroad scholarship to bright Kurds is making a difference in Kurdistan? When did it start and how many students have been educated abroad until now?

The HCDP was by far one of the most strategic initiatives by KRG. Over 4,500 talented young men and women were awarded scholarship in open competition to study in international centres of excellence, i.e one in every one thousand of the general population. Almost 3,000 reached their destinations within two years of launching in 2010, by prime minister Barham Salih. A significant proportion of these successful students has already returned to Kurdistan and begun to make a palpable difference. What is most reassuring is that the general public trusted the program’s fairness and transparency, and I am particularly pleased that up to 30 percent of the scholarships went to women, something considered a cultural revolution.

RUDAW: How much were you able to do in your 2.5 years as minister of higher education, and how much more is there left to do?

The 2.5 years was enough to launch a major reform program, but not enough to bring it to full fruition. It was enough to shake the old system and change it beyond recognition. In this time, we designed a long-term strategy and roadmap. After piloting some changes in early 2010, we implemented the strategy in milestones, and tackling the system from several different angles. I am proud of our collective achievements.

For example, for the first time in the history of Iraq, we introduced a modern system of teaching quality assurance and accreditation, to assess institutional and individual academic performance. We modernised curricula with emphasis on student self-learning, critical thinking and learning international languages. We regulated university licensing and closed down failing universities.

We reformed the management structure of public universities to raise quality, promote R&D and increase efficiency. We changed the PhD system from a classical three-year part-time course into a four-year research-intensive course, where every candidate would spend 12-18 months of their research in an international centre of excellence. To support this, we invested in enhancing international connectivity of our universities.

We inaugurated four new public universities, converted institutes of technology to three polytechnic universities. We injected over $200 million in the higher education institutions’ infrastructure and capital equipment. Again, Dr Barham Salih’s role in these investments was historic.

We introduced measures to protect human rights and ensure equal opportunity, gender equality and health and safety. You may be surprised that no such measures existed in Kurdistan or Iraq as a whole. The process of appointing staff based on merit via open competition proved to be another cultural revolution that very quickly spread outwards to include other ministries and public sector institutions. To further add to justice and transparency, we introduced an electronic system of university application (Zankoline) which has brought numerous benefits to students, universities and government.

RUDAW: These are significant achievements, but were they sustained and do you think they will be sustained by future Cabinets?

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: To protect and sustain these changes, we drafted a modern legislation where a number of new statutory bodies would come about to ensure quality, university independence (from government) and complete the roadmap. Unfortunately, we were not able to push this white paper through to the parliament before the Cabinet change, due largely to anti-reform lobby. The draft legislation was subsequently drowned in the ministry, and the entire reform process was slowed down, or some might say it is switched off. No doubt, reforming a stagnant system requires energy, leadership and sacrifice. In their absence, a slowdown or even shutdown would be inevitable. That said, I remain optimistic about the future. On one hand, much of the changes we introduced proved irreversible, and the pro-reform people have played roles in protecting the earlier achievements. More importantly, the current prime minister (Nechirvan Barzani) has emphasized his commitment to the reform program and publically pledged to re-energize 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.

RUDAW: What difficulties did you encounter from your people, like academics, students, officials, in trying to improve the educational system?

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. Others were traditionalists and not prepared to play by new rules. There were external influences that chronically interfered and manipulated the system to their own advantages.

By merely introducing new quality standards and licensing process, some private universities simply collapsed. Others tried to put up a tough fight, lobbied amongst the political and parliamentary elite, and mobilized interest groups or affiliated teacher- and student-organizations. In the past, student unions had unlimited access to power and imposed their will on the ministry. They were effectively running the show. Predictably, they opposed any initiative to institutionalize the decision-making process and limit their influence. They found an easy alliance with some private university owners whose institutions were under threat of closure. Some of the public university leaders, who were appointed by patronage and nepotism, supported them too.

Our ministry attracted the greatest number of demonstrations, whose demands were invariably illegal or inappropriate. Initially, we took them very seriously, but later decided that the reform process cannot be derailed. 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. I remember once being visited by a foreign dignitary who had been delayed by demonstrators, and only from his remarks I remembered that there were demonstration outside the ministry, otherwise it was no longer news and life in the ministry was ticking as normal.

Fortunately, the anti-reform lobby were in the minority and their efforts to derail the reform process went to no avail, but they succeeded in slowing it down after we left.

RUDAW: Could you describe in a few words the present state of the universities in the Kurdistan Region?

The universities in Kurdistan are now ambitious and forward looking, and despite the numerous barriers for progress, there are some very good exemplars. However, they all have a long way to go, with no room for complacency.

RUDAW: Among the some 30 public and private universities in Kurdistan, how many do you think have the quality you would like to see in all? Which are the best universities, if any?

The spectrum is wide. There are those that strive to be the best in the Middle East, while others are stuck in the past. The majority are somewhere in the middle. I will not hesitate to say that among the public universities, Dohuk University is by far the best, and among the private ones, the American University of Suleimani is the best.

RUDAW: Do you still advise the government on education?

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen: I have been supportive of the government and the Ministry of Higher Education before, during and after my involvement in the government, and I shall remain so. I consider every KRG government as my own, because they all serve my people and deserve our collective support.