Higher Education Could Support Kurdistan’s Economic Recovery

Political deadlock, a worsening economic crisis fueled by falling oil prices, refugees, and Daesh—much of the recent news from Iraqi Kurdistan swirls around these pressing issues. Disenfranchisement and frustration over the current situation in Kurdistan are exacerbated by allegations of rampant government corruption, prompting protests and boycotts across a region once hailed as a success story following the war in 2003.

Qubad Talabani, deputy prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, discussed the region’s economic issues at the recent Sulaimani Forum of the American University of Iraq, noting the need for the regional government to trim excess positions, reduce spending, modernize governmental systems, and diversify the economy beyond oil and gas. Talabani cited the government’s sole focus, in the past, on the development of oil and gas at the expense of other key sectors as a factor in the current economic crisis.

To better understand the development needs of industry in Kurdistan, the IREX Iraq University Linkage Program recently surveyed over 130 companies from eight sectors, asking industry representatives to cite specific changes needed to support economic growth.

Our findings showed that the sectors projecting the most growth include sales and services, health and human services, telecommunications and construction. English-language and general computer skills were most frequently cited as essential in successful employees, while soft skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication and initiative topped the list of core skills industry representatives said were lacking among recent university graduates. The lack of practical, hands-on training and real-world work experience rounded out areas in which companies noted significant challenges in hiring local graduates. But many industry representatives also expressed a willingness to help build students’ skills. Companies said they were willing to set up internship programs and help create campus-based advisory committees that would assist universities in developing programs aligned with industry needs.

Governmental attention in recent months has remained focused on immediate and dire issues facing the region. However, in order to build a vibrant, prosperous private sector, leaders in the Kurdistan region must take a proactive, long-term approach in seeking and responding to input from industry leaders, with higher education playing a key role in the nation-building process.

Immediate ways in which higher education can support economic development in Kurdistan include:

– Development of a comprehensive strategy and framework for academic standards and competencies. Unfortunately, recent attempts to bring key ministries, government offices, and university leaders together with the private sector to develop a framework were thwarted by internal conflicts. For sustainable long-term development, efforts among ministry offices and party officials must transcend the current rifts and unify to support development of the region’s industry.

– Higher-education leaders must take a hard look at current university programs, utilizing the limited existing data while gathering additional information essential in resolving the mismatch between academic programs and market needs.

– Academic leaders must have the political will to make hard decisions to prioritize funding and align academic programs to current and future market requirements in the region. Rather than continuing multiple programs in fields where no jobs exist, universities within the region should develop quality programs in hospitality, management, accounting and other fields where vacancies remain unfilled due to a lack of qualified local employees.

– Expansion of experiential education models such as the robust internship program developed by the deputy prime minister’s office aimed at providing Kurdish university students with opportunities to gain experience and connect to the burgeoning private sector in the region. Programs of this nature are crucial for providing the kind of real-world experience that academic study cannot, aiding a successful school-to-work transition for university graduates. The ministry of higher education should overhaul the current academic requirements to include internships and other experiential education models, putting funds and support behind such programs and offering academic credit for students successfully completing experiential education programs.

– Current programs aimed at helping university graduates find jobs, such as university-based career services centers, should be expanded and supported with adequate staff and funding.

– Academic programs must shift from theoretical, lecture-style teaching methods to hands-on, practical models that build the skills needed for success in today’s world.

While the current situation is arguably the worst for Iraqi Kurdistan since 2003, it offers an opportunity that cannot be missed. The gravity of the situation does not allow for a continuation of business as usual. Government leaders must transcend party lines and old power struggles to make the hard decisions necessary. While not an easy task, the current challenges offer a platform for real and substantial change, with higher education potentially taking a key role in reform.

Lori Mason is the senior technical advisor of the Iraq University Linkage Program for IREX, an international nonprofit organization.


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