Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Iraqi Kurdistan's Universities Need Reform

Equality and democracy in higher education must be practiced, not preached.
Higher education in Iraqi Kurdistan could prove to be a shining example to universities in the rest of the country, if significant changes are made to the way it is administered.

The Kurdish government has promised a bright future for its youth, with opportunities to study at excellent new universities, such as the American University of Iraq, to be built in Sulaimaniyah.

At the same time, higher education has benefited from the arrival of Arab academics, who have fled sectarian violence in central and southern parts of the country, and Kurdish intellectuals, who have returned from the Europe and elsewhere.

But the university system requires extensive reforms before it can serve Iraqi students. The region's universities are hindered by politics, corruption, a lack of resources and a culture that does not promote critical or independent thought.

These higher education problems - which are crippling Kurdistan on almost every level - could jeopardise the future of Iraqi Kurdistan and Iraq.

Over the next few decades, Iraq will continue to face many challenges that will require open-minded citizens who can think critically. In order to lead the country, the disillusioned younger generation needs to acquire the skills and knowledge that are currently not offered in Iraq’s Kurdish universities.

As a journalist and a 2004 graduate of the University of Sulaimaniyah, I can personally attest to the shortcomings of Iraqi Kurdistan's higher education system. I studied English, and about 80 out of the 130 students who entered the department my year received "special acceptance", meaning they relied on a powerful personal connection - usually through one of the main Kurdish parties - to enroll at the university.

English was rarely spoken in my hometown of Halabja, and I learned the language primarily by memorising English dictionaries and listening to BBC News on the radio. I thought that at university, I would have the institutional support to build an expertise in English, but I was disappointed. For example, we started our programme by studying Shakespeare, which is difficult even for native speakers, and were rarely given opportunities to speak English in class or use our language skills practically.

Realising that I needed to take the initiative if I wanted to learn anything, I volunteered to work with the few foreign professors at the university. This was how I learned English - not through the curriculum. Few of the students ever learned how to speak or write English well.

Power is an important component in Iraqi Kurdistan's higher education system. The universities, like most public and private institutions in the region, are run by the two main parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party. These parties have made it clear that they do not want to be challenged, and any challenge to convention is also rejected at universities.

Most of the lecturers are educated in Soviet-era studies and themes that are no longer relevant, and the higher education system is entirely based on traditional methods. Iraqi students are restless and eager to learn new methods.

We frequently petitioned and agitated for both basic services (it's difficult to study when there isn't electricity or water in your dorm) and modern curricula. If you only study curricula from the 1950s, you will think like you're in the 1950s. Since I have graduated, the protests have only grown, yet nothing has changed.

Many lecturers have also been punished for speaking against the political system in Iraqi Kurdistan. Farhad Pirbal, a highly influential, Sorbonne-educated Kurdish literature lecturer at the University of Salahaddin, was suspended after challenging the main political parties’ dominance and the power structure in Kurdistan. Earlier this year, he wrote a searing open letter denouncing corruption within the university’s administration.

Pirbal is well known for his collegial relationship with students, which is rare in Iraqi Kurdistan. In normal circumstances, lecturers set themselves apart from the students, who are seen and not heard. One of my lecturers once told a joke in class, and when the students laughed, he yelled at us that he was still the lecturer and we the students.

I had to unlearn this lecturer-student relationship when I came to the United States to study journalism. In my first semester, I kept quiet because I feared challenging lecturers’ ideas. My grades, which are in part based on class participation, suffered slightly as a result. In my second semester, I realised that my lecturers valued the opinions and analyses of students.

The Iraqi Kurdish government has long promised reform and improvements in higher education, but it has been only talk. As the potential leader in higher education in Iraq, it is time that we saw some action.

If the government is serious about improving education, it needs to devote resources to providing basic services for students such as electricity, water and modern books. The curricula will also need to be modernised. This will be costly - but is entirely necessary.

Beyond resources, the system needs an overhaul. Equality and democracy need to be practiced, not preached.

Students, too, need to be heard. Iraq will not succeed if the youth do not have the freedom to develop critical thinking skills, which are required to build a society that is inventive and constructive. Ultimately, Iraq's main resource will not be the country's oil, but its minds.

Mariwan Hama-Saeed is Kurdish editor for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting's Iraq programme. He is a master's candidate in journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

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