As the number of Iraqi students, studying in the USA, is increasing in the last few years, Iraqi government has shown keenness in opening a new American University in Iraq. Minister of Higher Education Ali al-Adeeb asked for public support for such move. In December 16th, he wrote an article on ‘Why Baghdad needs an US University?’ The article was written for the US website, specializing in higher education system.
In his article, he invited American university to open a new university in central o southern Iraq. In Sulaimaniyah of Iraq, an American University already exists. He also assured that opening of such university will provide better education system in Iraq.
Adeeb's position is remarkable because he is a leading figure in the Shiite Dawa Party, led by Prime Minister of Iraq, Nouri al-Maliki. Some observers were surprised that his ministry would be enthusiastic about such an idea given that the Shiite parties generally do not support what they view as “Western cultural penetration” of Iraqi society. The Dawa party has traditionally been opposed to Western cultural expansion, at least according to the writings of its ideological guide Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr (who was executed in 1980).
In addition to this, Mr. Adeeb is also widely known as a party hawk and a representative of Dawa's politically and intellectually militant base. Thus his call — which recognizes the West’s intellectual progress and offers self-criticism of the educational situation in Iraq — signals a significant shift in the thinking of both the minister and his party.
This is not, however, the first time that Adeeb has pointed out, whether explicitly or implicitly, that higher education in Iraq has failed to produce graduates with modern educations, critical-thinking skills and creative abilities. But, it is also a fact that his ministry has not been able to change the education department scenario in Iraq. Still, the higher eduction sector of Iraq needs to be revamped drastically.
Most of the Iraqi universities apply rigid educational methods. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi students graduate each year from high school and then are sent to public universities in accordance with centralized standards that rarely take into consideration students' particular qualifications and preferences.
Most university professors are hired on a permanent basis as government employees and according to centralized distribution, rather than competition. The hiring process is riddled with cronyism, nepotism and corruption, as is the case throughout Iraqi government institutions. As a result, university professors often lack incentives to improve their performance.
In recent years, the level of graduate studies has declined due to lack of enough competition. Advanced degrees are granted to mediocre students without good educational records and often without even minimal knowledge of a foreign language.
Right now graduate degree has become a way of gaining social status. These practices have harmed the reputation of Iraqi universities because they are graduating “professors” who are not qualified to teach and who cannot access up-to-date scientific sources, which are rarely in Arabic. These professors therefore end up imparting inadequate knowledge to students in an educational system devoid of individual initiative and critical research.
Adeeb's invitation to open an American university is an implicit acknowledgment of how difficult it is to reform the higher education system. Certainly, an American university in Iraq would contribute to reviving competitiveness in the educational system and help graduate qualified students with modern educations, as is done at the American University of Beirut and the American University in Cairo.
With the high cost of studying at an American university compared to an Iraqi university, a new American school would probably only attract wealthy students, mostly the sons and daughters of senior state officials and the businesspeople allied with them. Many qualified students who lacking adequate financial resources would likely be unable to attend. In the long run, this could further perpetuate elitism in Iraqi education, which already seems an inescapable outcome given the poor performance of the public university system.
The opening of an American University will surely be a positive sign or approach from the higher education ministry of Iraq. Bringing about a real shift in the Iraqi university system, however, will require a courageous reform initiative by the government, and that has not yet happened.