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Iraqi Academics Come Together to Debate Future of Higher-Education System

January 28, 2011

Does the government of Iraq spend less on higher education now than Saddam Hussein did? Are most Iraqi academics suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder? Do female academics in Iraq need more support?

These and other issues were debated here this week as part of a unique conference designed to bring together Iraqi scholars in exile and education officials from the country. The meeting, "Reconstruction of Higher Education in Post-Conflict Iraq," drew 100 Iraqi academics, along with education-ministry officials and 22 university presidents. They discussed—sometimes heatedly—the present and future state of higher education in their country.

The conference was organized by the Institute of International Education in coordination with the Post-War Reconstruction and Development Unit at the University of York. The New York-based institute runs the Scholar Rescue Fund, which awards scholarships to academics around the world who fear for their lives, helping them find positions at host institutions. A dedicated Iraq relief fund was established in 2007 and has helped hundreds of threatened Iraqi scholars find safe haven. Most of them have relocated to Jordan.

Iraq's once-renowned universities have been crippled by years of sanctions and the destruction that accompanied and followed the 2003 American invasion. Academics have also suffered from the ethnic, sectarian, and political violence that has rocked the country. Since 2003, at least 451 scholars have been the victims of assassinations.

One of the goals of this conference, say organizers, was to keep Iraqi professors outside the country in touch with the academic community back home, and make them aware of opportunities to go back.

While returning to his or her country of origin is each professor's choice, the administrators of the Scholar Rescue Fund say the program is designed to encourage academics to do so when they feel safe. In his opening remarks, the group's chairman, Henry Jarecki, said its goal was "brain protection, not brain drain."

Most of the academics The Chronicle spoke to—many of whom have faced attacks or abductions—say they are too afraid to go back to Iraq. Some point to cases of colleagues who were killed within days of returning to their hometowns.

Dlawer Ala'Aldeen, minister of higher education and scientific research of the Kurdish region of Iraq, said scholars should consider taking jobs in the region's now-booming higher-education sector. "Kurdistan is your home," the minister told the assembled professors. "You can come and be there until the rest of Iraq is ready for you."

The conference used scholarship to bring scholars and administrators together, said Sultan Barakat, director of the Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit, a master's program at the University of York. When he first heard of the Scholar Rescue Fund, he said, "I felt there should be some focus on the future of Iraq." Mr. Barakat also notes that "there is very little research written by Iraqis about Iraq. The vast majority is written by Western academics." So, he said, the idea emerged: "Why not combine the rescue effort with a research component that specifically focuses people's minds on reconstruction?"

The conference was organized around a series of original research papers, which will eventually become a scholarly volume edited by Mr. Barakat. Several of the papers were collaborations between Iraqi academics inside and outside the country.

Given how riven Iraqi society is by sectarian and political divisions, it's important, say Mr. Barakat and the conference organizers, "to bring everyone together."

Up for Debate

Yet there was also plenty of debate. A statistical analysis of higher-education financing, for example, was criticized by a number of attendees. The paper noted that although millions have been spent by Iraq, the United States, and international donors to reconstruct the country's higher-education sector, universities have suffered from a lack of coordination and strategic vision, and from "dramatic shifts in plans and allocation." In addition, the paper argued that the Iraqi government does not prioritize higher education, spending only 1.2 percent of its budget on it—a lower percentage than under Saddam Hussein's government.

Higher-education ministry officials and university presidents questioned its accuracy, though, with some presidents arguing that academics who have fled the country haven't kept up with the significant improvements and investments that have taken place.

Other papers discussed the role of gender in higher education in Iraq; quality-assurance mechanisms; and the extremely high levels of post-traumatic stress disorder among Iraqi academics.

The work presented highlights the contributions that Iraq's academic diaspora can make to the nation's reform of higher education. "Through displacement" the refugee scholars have "rediscovered academia, been exposed to new research methodologies," Mr. Barakat said. "They are more of an asset now than when they left." And "whether the scholars can go back or not," said Daniela Z. Kaisth, vice president for strategic development at the Institute of International Education, through collaborations and long-distance mentoring, "they can contribute."

 


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