The expected resounding “yes” vote in the Kurdish independence referendum on September 25 will throw the fate of non-Kurdish students and the governance of the region’s 30 universities into uncertainty.
“The situation now is unpredictable,” said an arts instructor at a private Kurdish university who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisals from pro-independence groups.
Tensions among Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians, Yazidis and Turkmen emerged on campuses even before the nationalist “Vote Yes” campaign for the referendum gained full steam. The government of the region in northern Iraq controlled by the Kurds has called for the independence referendum to strengthen its hand in negotiations for secession. The controversial referendum is also supposed to take place in territory seized by the Kurds during the present war with the Islamic State.
At the University of Kirkuk, in the oil-rich city that is a flashpoint in the dispute between the central Iraqi government and the Kurdish regional government, clashes erupted in December between non-Kurds and Kurdish secessionists who took down the Iraqi flag and raised their national banner.
Turkmen and Arabs together represent about 60 percent of Kirkuk’s population. They are among those most fiercely opposed to the referendum.
Earlier last year, after Baghdad announced budget cuts to the Kurdish government, Al-Mustaqbal, a national Iraqi news portal, reported that Kurdish officials imposed ethnic quotas on the number of Arab instructors at the region’s universities.
Those kinds of measures are typical, said Alfred Sarkis, a 19-year-old Chaldean Christian who studies dentistry in Erbil, the capital of the Kurdish region.
“We study in a faculty where English is supposed to be the language of instruction but most professors are poor in English,” said Sarkis. “But they got their jobs in exchange for their membership cards in the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party. If you do not know high officials, you will not be hired at this university.”
Sarkis was also skeptical of the official Kurdish policy of tolerance toward Christians and the promises of inclusion of Kurdistan’s Arab minority in an independent state.
“I feel their good treatment of Christians is not real, as if they were wolves disguised as lambs,” he said. “As for Arabs, they treat them so badly, and whenever they have a personal problem with someone who isn’t Kurdish, they curse the whole Arab nation.”
But Kurds defended independence, saying Sarkis’ fears were unfounded.
“Nothing bad will happen to minority students,” said Syako Sulaiman Shekho, a professor of English and director of the career-development center at Soran University, a public institution 65 kilometers west of the Iranian border.
Minorities aren’t the only people worried about the effects of possible Kurdish independence. Critics of Kurdish President Masoud Barzani say he has created a dictatorship that will flourish if the region becomes a sovereign country. Barzani has had his term limits extended twice. Opposition parties boycotted the parliamentary vote to set the referendum, saying they supported independence but now was not the time to break away from Iraq.
“There is no infrastructure, economy, or the basics of a state in Kurdistan to split from Iraq now. It’s a totalitarian government,” said Suzan Amin, a former member of an armed Kurdish independence group now working as a sociologist in Sweden. “We are afraid Barzani will take us to the abyss of a tribal tyranny.”
Kurdish officials moved forward with the referendum over the objections of Baghdad as well as the American, Turkish, Iranian and Syrian governments. Washington said the vote would distract from the fight against the Islamic State. Turkey, Syria and Iran fear their own breakaway Kurdish movements.
Because Kurdistan was a refuge from the sectarian violence haunting the rest of Iraq in recent years, the region’s private education sector became a sanctuary for students from other parts of Iraq. The students from outside Kurdistan wound up in private schools and universities because the public institutions have limited seats due to funding shortages, according to Iraqi government statistics.
An agency that is a blend of international and local efforts has also been helping Iraqi students displaced by the Islamic State to study in Kurdish universities. The agency works with the European Union and United Nations to process tuition payments on behalf of several hundred Syrian Kurds studying in Kurdistan.
But Iraq and the Kurdistan regional government have had disagreements that have lingered for years. Independence proponents say disputes over Iraqi higher-education appropriations are among the reasons for Kurdistan’s breakaway attempt.
“Reducing the region’s share of the budget since 2014 and cutting salaries, research grants and travel allowances to conferences has caused many problems,” said Gasha Abdullah Ali, an assistant lecturer and doctoral candidate at Sulaymaniyah University’s languages faculty. Ali is a Kurd who supports independence.
But Ali said she believed that issue could be resolved once Kurdistan was independent.
“The political, cultural and social-level effects will be temporary until the declaration of full separation from Iraq,” Ali said. “We hope that harmony and love will prevail among all.”
Her view reflected that of many Kurdish academics. While the Kurdish Ministry of Higher Education administers local universities, funding is still connected to the federal government which controls most of the oil revenue, she adds.
“Independence will improve higher education in the region,” says Shekho. “We faced so many hurdles from the bureaucracy in Baghdad. The split will make things easier to be accomplished. Independence is going to allow us an education free of politics.”