A Conversation with the Iraqi Minister of Higher Education

BAGHDAD—The Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Ali Al-Adeeb spoke to Al-Fanar Media about the situation of higher education in Iraq after three years of his tenure.

The minister, often described as one of the more elegant and calm Iraqi politicians, studied psychology at the University of Baghdad in the mid-sixties. He has an extensive experience in fields such as teaching methods, public and private child psychology, school administration and educational psychology.
Al-Adeeb was chased out of Iraq by Saddam Hussein’s regime due to his opposition. But he returned in 2003 and participated in writing the new Iraqi constitution. He was elected to Parliament for two terms before he was appointed to lead the higher education and scientific-research ministry in December, 2010.

Al-Adeeb got a master’s degree in psychology from Al-Mustansiriya University in 2009.

Three years have passed since you became leader of the higher-education ministry. How could you describe the education situation today?
Iraq lost three whole decades of cognitive development and civilization due to wars and conflicts. During these years, the educational system crumbled sharply. I started my mission based on a strategy that aims to bridge the knowledge gap between Iraq and other Arab countries. But three years can’t be enough to offset such huge losses. Still, what has been achieved over the past three years could be considered as a quantum leap.

Could you share with us some measurements of what has been accomplished?
Education is investing in human resources, so it can’t be just measured by numbers. But there are some indicators.

For example, we had 19 public universities in 2011 (one university for every 1.7 million residents) but now we have ten more (a university for each 1.1 million citizens) in addition to 69 new faculties [departments]. Also, the number of private universities rose from 26 to 42. The number of students enrolled in public universities also rose from 92,000 students in 2011-2012 to 160,000 this year. The total number of new students in both public and private universities is around 220,000. The annual growth of the student population exceeds 6 percent, which is high compared to Iraq’s population growth of 2.8 percent.

What are the reasons behind setting up all of these universities and colleges?
We started from the needs of Iraqi society itself and cities particularly. Two years ago, for example, we did not have any university specialized in oil and gas although the government’s budget is 95-percent dependent on oil. Iraq has the third largest oil reserves in the world and we are the third largest oil producer in OPEC countries. That is why we opened the University of Qurna for oil and gas, which will provide the engineers needed for this industry. The same thing for the rest of universities we established, the University of Fallujah is specialized in agricultural science and we have Al Qasim Green University for environmental studies.

But do we have enough teaching staff for all these universities? And will we have enough jobs for all coming graduates?
I will answer first the second part of the question because it has already been the subject of an ongoing debate among us and the ministries of finance and planning and also with the premier. The idea is that Iraq has suffered for more than two generations from mandatory ignorance. Youth went to fight in wars in the 80s’ and 90s’ instead of going to schools and universities. Even in 2003 employment opportunities were rare and graduates’ salaries were not more than a few dollars at best.
We lived in cognitive and social calamity for more than 33 years, so we need to encourage young people to gain more opportunities for education, not only to be qualified for labor market but also to develop their knowledge and cultural and social talents. Moreover, reconstruction of Iraq requires the rehabilitation of national competencies.
Now for having enough qualified faculty members, Iraq used to enjoy a great reputation in this area. And we are committed to support talent. We started the biggest campaign for scholarships in the history of modern Iraq, a campaign that includes sending 10,000 students to get Ph.Ds from international universities. We have increased the budget for scholarships from $80 million to about $350 million to secure sending all these students to study in universities in Britain , America, Australia, France, Canada and other developed countries.
Also, the ministry supervises approximately 10,000 students studying at their private expense in different countries around the world.

Do Iraqi universities have enough qualified infrastructure to provide the needed educational services?
Infrastructure for scientific disciplines has not, until recently, been at the required level. The last update was in 1982. Also, a large portion of these supplies was destroyed during the wars of 1991 and 2003 and a large number of them have been stolen or vandalized during the events of 2003.
To fix this problem, we started a pilot project two years ago, with the total amount of 1.6 trillion Iraqi dinars (about $1.3 billion) to prepare more than 100,000 scientific laboratories and get advanced medical and engineering devices. The project’s first phase was carried out by a German company to provide laboratory services for the medical specialties. The next phase will include the provision of engineering and science services.
Regarding the university buildings, our plan over the past three years has been based on turning Iraqi universities into integrated towns that will include all needed services to provide a suitable work environment.

How do you evaluate women participation in the Iraqi education sector?
Iraq was one of the first Arab countries to support women’s participation in leadership positions. However, their participation was weak in education. Today we have more than 40 female deans, assistants to presidents and research center directors. We are also proud to have Saba Adnan as the first woman to be the president of Tikrit University.

Last week, a suicide bombing at a university in north Baghdad killed at least 14 people. Days later, another attack broke into a college in Baquba city. How could your plan to develop education work in such deteriorating security?
Undoubtedly security is a priority. Security agencies are trying to provide better protection for our universities, but the problem lies in the spread of terrorist ideology. Hundreds of professors received death threats from al-Qaeda and armed groups and it was clear to us from the beginning that they want to dump the country’s minds to stop any chance of development or stability. But we have to say also that violence has subsided since 2008, which encouraged hundreds of university professors to return to the country. More than 570 university professors returned in less than two years as we encouraged them to return by offering careers with high privileges.

You called on researchers recently to examine deeply the phenomenon of suicide bombers. How will you implement this?
We have already adopted a program to review and update the curriculum of Islamic and historical studies. Part of our work is to understand and analyze the reasons for terrorist ideology. A large part of the curriculum in Arab and Muslim worlds is filled with various stories that stir up controversy. These approaches produce narrow-minded fanatics who hold in their minds ticking time bombs that could explode at any moment. Most of the so-called al-Qaeda Emirs graduated from the Shari’ah faculties in Iraq.
Basically, we need to protect our young people from falling into the trap of hatred and extremism. Therefore, we believe that each dollar we spend to develop our curriculum will save the lives of thousands of innocent people who could be the victims of terrorism, not only in Iraq, but in all the countries of the world.
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