Poverty, war, bureaucracy: The obstacles hindering Iraq's education sector

Poverty, war, bureaucracy: The obstacles hindering Iraq's education sector
8 min read
09 May, 2017
In-depth: Political wrangling between rival administrations has exacerbated the hardships already faced by Iraq's schoolchildren and university students, reports Paul Iddon.
Burning oil wells have left a toxic legacy for the children of Mosul [AFP]

Across northern Iraq, including in the autonomous Kurdistan region, politics and war have taken a heavy toll on education, from children in school to students at universities.

The bloody and infamous rise of the Islamic State group has also disrupted the education of hundreds of thousands of displaced youths. 

"Baghdad made a decision that those who missed school for two years were not allowed return," Nemam Ghafouri, a Kurdish doctor, told The New Arab.

"They are asking if Baghdad can revise this decision, given their circumstance - they have lived in camps for two years and were unable to continue their education, while others were in IS captivity until recently," the doctor, who works for the Joint Help for Kurdistan non-governmental organisation helping displaced Yazidis, added.

There are two ministries of education in northern Iraq, one run by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and the other by the Iraqi Ministry of Education.

"For the past year and a half, the KRG has been saying the issue is Baghdad's responsibility - while Baghdad says it's a KRG responsibility, and they just go back and forth like this," the doctor added. "If one of them made a change the other would follow."

Dr Ghafouri is also working on the construction of a new school in the Yazidi town of Sharfadin, home to one of the Yazidis' holiest shrines and a centre of Yazidi cultural life. If Yazidi youth cannot continue their education on their kindred soil they are more likely to join their families and friends who have already emigrated.

Dr Ghafouri believes that if they have a decent school, there is more of a chance they will stay. A GoFundMe page entitled "School in Sinjar Mountain" has so far received only a tiny fraction of the required £100,000 ($129,000). Profits from a recently released documentary movie about the Yazidis' plight, called The Longest Road, will be donated to the cause.

Other Yazidi children work with their families as farmers and were unable to start school until they were as old as ten, at which stage the Iraqi Ministry of Education deemed them too old to begin schooling.

During the 2003 US-led invasion and overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime, Iraqi youth lost two years of school. IS' genocidal onslaughts across the region in 2014 saw them lose another two crucial years.

Having two education ministries in the region has also posed problems for more well-off students. Dr Beriwan Khailany, a Kurdish MP in the Iraqi parliament and a member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), told The New Arab about problems students in higher education in the Kurdistan region faced as a direct result of being torn between bureaucracies.

"The Ministry of Education here in Kurdistan is a replica of the same ministry in Baghdad," she explained. "It's based on the same legislation. We have committees inside this region's ministry as well as the one in Baghdad. They do different things like recognising certificates, degrees and getting in touch with foreign universities and assuring consistent quality in the region's educational institutions.

"We faced a problem around 2010 when Baghdad didn't recognise new public and private universities in this region," she added.

Since the Kurdistan region remains an autonomous part of Iraq, as opposed to a fully fledged independent state, new educational institutes not recognised by Baghdad produce graduates whose degrees are not recognised anywhere outside of Kurdistan.

"Let's say I'm a graduate from one of the unrecognised universities here and I want to go to the UK to further my education," Khailany said. "As part of the procedure, the UK asks for a letter from the minister of foreign affairs in Baghdad, which I wouldn't get since Baghdad doesn't recognise my university. So graduates cannot find any jobs outside of Kurdistan.

Article 55 has been approved by parliament and is being approved by the president's office

"When I started my job as an MP working on the Higher Education Committee we prioritised this problem," she added. "We tried to amend the private higher education legislation to benefit Kurdistan's universities."

Khailany and her team managed to add a piece of legislation in the Iraqi parliament, Article 55, which "says that any university that's established in Kurdistan should be recognised by Higher Education officials in Baghdad".

"Article 55 has been approved by parliament and is being approved by the president's office," she continued. "It has been published in the Iraqi Gazette, where all legislation in the country is published. When approved by all sectors of government, president's office, prime minister's office and Council of Representatives it will be implemented."

For a university to be recognised, a committee from Baghdad inspects all departments and facilities and looks at what kind of programmes they offer. They also assess who the students are, and how they are accepted. "That's the committee's responsibility," she added.

Khailany says four institutions were recently investigated in this way. Iraq's Minister of Higher Education visited Kurdistan and "had a nice orientation visit to different universities".

Khailany said while progress is being made, there are stumbling blocks with the KRG ministry.

"The Minister of Higher Education in this region, Dr Yousif Goran, is not really helpful in doing this procedure in a faster way," she said. "He says we have our own ministry and we are responsible for our universities. But if any of your students want to travel to continue their studies they need approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Baghdad, that's why we're trying to get approved and recognised by Baghdad, for the benefit of our students.


"So what we did," she added, "was to get in touch with universities in this region ourselves and provided them with a copy of the amended legislation. Now they need to convince the minister to help them out and overcome this obstacle. But he says we're not obliged to have recognition from Baghdad. I disagree with this. Having been in higher education all my life, it's the wrong approach."

Khailany argues that if Kurdistan were to become its own independent country, the minister's stance would be understandable. "But right now, for the sake of our students, we need to think about how to get this recognition from Baghdad.

"We need to convince him to finish this work and let our universities be part of the UNESCO list. UNESCO has a list of higher education institutions which are recognised by state capitals in the countries they are in. That's why all the new universities, private and public, in Kurdistan are not on this list because they are not on the Iraq list. Until independence we need to worry about this, for this current generation who are graduating, we need to help them and enable them to continue their studies abroad. If we don't pass this step they won't be able to do so."

Khailany also touched on the status of displaced youths continuing their education in Kurdistan, explaining that loss of identification documents and other paperwork has proven problematic.

"Some of the students missed one year, but most of them, especially those who have IDs, have been placed in different colleges and universities," she explained. "When IS came, lots of people fled their houses, bringing nothing. So it's difficult to get students who missed school for a while and who lost their IDs back into the system."

Lack of identification may prove a serious problem when it comes to upcoming provincial elections in Iraq.

"So far I haven't heard any suggested solutions to this problem," Khailany said.

When IS came, lots of people fled their houses, bringing nothing. So it's difficult to get students who missed school for a while and who lost their IDs back into the system

There is progress, however, on other fronts when it comes to helping the displaced continue their education.

"The Ministry of Refugees and Displaced People try to find places for displaced people's schools and universities. The ministry cooperates with the KRG, the minister visits with his team in the region's camps. Offices in the Ministry of Education in this region's three provinces are responsible for putting students in safe areas. They have schools and a chance to complete their interrupted education."

Mosul University has now set up campus in the Kurdish city of Duhok, complete with professors.

"When I want to get in touch with Mosul University I talk to the chancellor who now lives in Duhok," she said.

Despite its reopening following relocation, the university still lost a lot in the battle for Mosul.

Ahmed al-Zakaria is a 26-year-old graduate of Mosul University who now lives in Erbil. He has a copy of his degree certificate which can get him a job in his field in Iraq. However, the original copy, which he would need in order to work abroad, remained in Mosul University when IS arrived. IS torched the university's faculties and library - burning troves of important books, documents and paperwork - as the Iraqi army advanced into the city.

Professors from the university hope to rebuild and restart their work there as soon as possible.

And it's not only the students who are suffering. Teachers in the Kurdistan region who receive their salary from the KRG have also faced problems in the past three years. The cutting off of oil revenues to the autonomous region in February 2014, coupled with the war against IS and the tanking of global oil prices proved a perfect storm and rapidly drained the KRG's financial reserves.

Consequently, government employees - most of the work force in Kurdistan - found themselves going for months at a time without pay. Even the Peshmerga army tasked with defending the region received no salary for months.

Mere days after Iraqi Kurdistan's President Masoud Barzani declared the Kurds' war against IS over last November - after the Peshmerga advanced across the Nineveh Plains and forced the militants back to Mosul's periphery - he expressed his sympathy and respect for unpaid government employees such as teachers - thousands of whom even took to the streets to demand their overdue pay.

"Concerning dissatisfaction among teachers and civil servants, I respect their rights and they have all the right to demand their rights from the government," Barzani said.

"I support them, as our country has to be prosperous," he added. "But, due to the security, economic and political crises that have come about, the government's capabilities have been limited."

Now, as the IS threat to the region gradually recedes, Baghdad and Erbil will need to step up efforts to mitigating the risk that this next generation - from destitute displaced youths to higher education students from non-recognised Kurdish universities - lose their chance to attain a decent education and future.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon