Fewer Young Iraqis Choose to Study Archaeology
Many of Iraq’s world heritage sites lie in ruins three years after the collapse of the Islamic State and thousands of mounds conceal remnants of ancient cities. The sites are under threat of looting and need teams of experts to unveil their treasures. But fewer young people want to study archaeology in what is regarded as the cradle of civilization, and jobs are scarce for those who do.
Field excavations led by teams from the United Kingdom, the United States, France, Italy, Germany and the Czech Republic have resumed in Iraq’s southern governorates and the northern Kurdish region.
Iraqi students who could potentially enter the discipline, however, are discouraged by stories like that of Ibrahim Al-Obaidi, who graduated from the University of Mosul’s College of Archaeology in 2018 and hasn’t been able to find a job.
“The graduates’ situation is painful,” Al-Obaidi said. “There are no public or private jobs for us. It has become a joke for an archaeologist to apply for jobs.”
At the University of Mosul only 28 students out of 17,000 students joined the College of Archaeology this year, according to its president, Kossay Al-Ahmady. “It is usually higher,” he said.
Mosul’s College of Archaeology was established in 2008 by expanding a former department to meet the need for experts in a heritage-rich country. Iraq has more than 15,000 archaeological sites, according to an updated digital Atlas of Archaeological Sites in Iraq developed by Abdulameer Al-Hamdani, a former minister of culture, tourism and antiquities.
Usama Adnan, an assistant professor of history at Al-Mustansiriyah University, says the admission of only a handful of students in some of Iraq’s archaeology schools stems from “a lack of archaeological awareness.”
“Unprofessional people started writing about antiquities on social media,” Adnan said. “This made many people think that archaeology is an easy discipline anyone can write about.”
Shifts in Students’ Preferences
In the 2020-2021 academic year, Iraq’s universities admitted more than 210,000 students, with thousands of them competing for places in health-profession disciplines like medicine, dentistry and pharmacy. Faculties of humanities, meanwhile, struggled to attract students.
“This is really worrisome, and is not limited to the faculties of archaeology or Mosul University alone,” said Al-Hamdani, the former minister of culture. “The University of Thi-Qar’s history department has admitted nine students, with a teaching staff of 35 professors, leaving them to fight over lectures,” he added. “Students are reluctant to study geography or history. They see no future for them after graduation.”
“This is really worrisome, and is not limited to the faculties of archaeology or Mosul University alone.”Abdulameer Al-Hamdani
A former minister of culture, tourism and antiquities
Mosul’s College of Archaeology has 82 teaching staff and an undergraduate enrollment of about 560. Out of 41 students admitted this year, including 28 in the first intake, only 11 have started their studies.
A source in Mosul’s archaeology college who asked to remain anonymous believes changing higher-education policies have contributed to the decline.
Education authorities recently “reduced the admission requirements for other faculties’ evening classes,” the source said, “and students can join more promising faculties with lower grades at private colleges.”
Why Few Choose to Study Archaeology
Al-Ahmady believes that students’ preferences directly reflect the labor market’s needs: “The majors with higher financial returns attract more students.”
“Everything is directly related to money,” he said. “This is why there is a hectic competition to join medical colleges, the crowned kings of colleges, for two reasons: prestige and economic security. The Faculty of Nursing, for example, admitted students with grades [on the national high-school exit exam] as high as 97 percent. They used to admit students with grades as low as 51 percent ten years ago. This is related to the fact that nurses will be definitely employed upon graduation.”
Amer Al-Jumaili, a professor of archaeology at Mosul, also blames austerity measures taken by the Iraqi government due to lower oil revenues and the coronavirus pandemic. (See a related article, “In Iraq, Hunger for Jobs Collides With a Government That Can’t Provide Them.”)
“Students want to be employed,” Al-Jumaili said. “Graduates of education faculties have guaranteed teaching jobs. Faculties of pure science and arts are classified as supporting colleges; that means once there is a vacant post, their graduates will be employed. Colleges of archaeology, on the other hand, are neither educational nor supportive, and their graduates have fewer opportunities.”
No Help from the Private Sector
Al-Hamdani thinks the government is not obliged to find jobs for all.
“We have around five million public-sector employees,” he said. “The problem is partly due to the lack of the private sector’s role and lack of investment.”
Mustafa Faraj, an archaeologist from Mosul, thinks there is an urgent need for new experts specialized in preserving and restoring cultural heritage sites. But job opportunities for archaeology graduates “are limited to Iraq’s State Board of Antiquities and Heritage and the colleges of archaeology, with no prospects in the private sector,” he said.
Another reason for the decline in students at some archaeology colleges, said Faraj, “is Iraq’s opening of seven new archaeology departments and colleges in many governorates after 2003,” the year of former President Saddam Hussein’s ouster.
[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
Ibrahim Al-Obaidi, the 2018 graduate of Mosul’s College of Archeology, works as a taxi driver now. His wife, also an archaeologist, has also failed to find a job. “Some of my colleagues started evening classes at the College of Law,” said Al-Obaidi. “At least they might work at a law firm. I would never encourage anyone to study archaeology, it has no future.”
Some students, however, are not giving up on archaeology. Hussein Al-Rubai’i followed his passion and joined Baghdad University’s Archaeology department along with 76 other students this year.
“I chose to study archaeology to fulfill my life’s dream,” he said. “My high-school exit exam grades were 78 percent, and I was able to study law at the University of Wasit, in my hometown, but I preferred archaeology.”
Quality Over Quantity
Al-Jumaili thinks the decline in interest in studying the humanities has been universal.
In the 1950s, “archaeology attracted the elites and figures like the Japanese Prince Takahito Mikasa, who studied archaeology and led an expedition in Iraq,” he said. “Nowadays, prestigious faculties like the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies find it difficult to keep its doors open.”
Al-Hamdani prefers to focus on the quality of programs instead of student numbers.
Unlike archaeology students in Europe and the United States, he said, many Iraqi students enter archaeology just to get a degree, “with no real passion or good intellectual background.”
“Some have become a burden on the antiquities authorities,” he said, explaining that of the 460 graduates he hired last year as culture minister, he considered less than 10 percent to be fully qualified. “I would prefer raising the admission requirements and admitting fewer students,” he said.
Ali Hussein, an archaeologist at the Iraq Museum in Baghdad, agrees.
“I would prefer having 11 students who are really passionate about archaeology than having 70 careless students who would seek other jobs later on,” he said. “We already have many archaeologists in Iraq. Having fewer students will make employing them easier.”
Changing How Archaeology Is Taught
Al-Hamdani thinks the situation calls for curricular reform.
Archaeology departments at “foreign universities teach zooarchaeology, anthropology, ethnography and pure sciences,” he said. “In Iraq, we just focus on history and describing artifacts, buildings and temples.”
Al-Hamdani is planning to hold workshops in collaboration with Durham University to train Iraqi students on writing papers and editing research articles. “I would be so pleased to develop a handful of well-trained archaeologists in order to revive Iraq’s archaeological schools,” he said.
Al-Ahmady, of the University of Mosul, thinks the country lacks an awareness “of how to exploit the economic capabilities of antiquities.”
“Antiquities are one of Iraq’s strengths,” said Al-Ahmady, who has worked to obtain support for joint projects and cooperation with Britain, Germany and Italy in this field.
The University of Mosul is a partner with the Banuu project, a European Union-funded initiative for employability and entrepreneurship of Iraqi students in archaeology and cultural heritage, in collaboration with Iraqi, Italian and Turkish universities.
The university is currently awaiting approval from the Ministry of Culture, Tourism and Antiquities to launch a joint excavation in collaboration with the University of Bologna, in Italy, which runs the Banuu project.
“If approved, our students and the university will be busy for years with excavations,” said Al-Ahmady. “According to the joint preliminary studies, we expect to get quite a lot.”