Stones and apples for changing Kurdistan's universities

Dlawer Ala'Aldeen Prof Ala'Aldeen swapped the lecture hall for re-inventing the university system

Prof Dlawer Ala'Aldeen had tomatoes, stones and apples thrown at him. He faced countless demonstrations.

The reason for this hostility, facing the microbiologist from the University of Nottingham, was his controversial attempt to reform the university system in his birthplace of Kurdistan.

Prof Ala'Aldeen was the architect of plans to improve the quality and to internationalise higher education in Iraqi Kurdistan.

He says he was up against "deeply entrenched interests, people, institutions and long stagnant cultures".

The region, autonomous for two decades in the wake of the Gulf War, had inherited a post-Saddam university system that Prof Ala'Aldeen has described as "grossly outdated" and designed for a closed, centralised country.

In 2009 Prof Ala'Aldeen was given a secondment away from his job as professor of clinical microbiology at Nottingham University in the UK.

He stepped from academic life in the English midlands into the role of Kurdistan's higher education minister, a post he held until last year.

'Crisis of quality'

Prime Minister Barham Salih, a good friend, chose him for his knowledge of the higher education system and the series of critical articles on education and governance he had written in the years up to his appointment.

KURDISTAN'S UNIVERSITIES

University opening in Kurdistan

Before 1992 and the Gulf War, the Kurdistan region had only one university, founded in the 1960s, with around 1,500 new students a year. It had to serve a population of over 5 million.

There are now 19 public and private universities and higher education institutions, with almost 100,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students. Two universities conduct their courses in English and others teach science courses in English.

Almost half of students are women.

The university in the capital Irbil is in one of the world's most ancient cities.

Barham Salih's election manifesto had included significant support for higher education and training to support Kurdistan's large population of under 20 year olds.

There were already plans for more scholarships to send talented students to study overseas.

Within a week of being appointed, Prof Ala'Aldeen had written up a radical vision document and it was quickly endorsed by the cabinet.

Higher education in Kurdistan was suffering a major crisis of quality, capacity and infrastructure.

There was a consensus in support of reform and it helped that Prof Ala'Aldeen had been very critical of the government in the past.

The reforms, which planned to improve the quality and accreditation of university teachers, brought considerable opposition from student and teacher organisations as well as businesses linked with the burgeoning market in private universities.

Several new private universities were threatened with closure, much to the anger of their staff and prospective students who had paid fees for their courses.

"Many teachers had been licensed prematurely. There were 11 private universities when I started with 18 more waiting to be opened. These mushrooming private colleges were relying on the same pool of resources as the public universities which lacked staff and facilities," Prof Ala'Aldeen says.

The problem of staffing was particularly acute in medicine, pharmacy and dentistry and in postgraduate studies.

Closed universities

But Prof Ala'Aldeen faced protests and opposition.

He was accused of trying to transplant the UK system onto Kurdistan, something he vehemently denies since he was educated and worked in his home region, before coming to study in the UK.

Erbil, September 2013 The university in Irbil is in one of the world's oldest cities

"I knew the system from the inside and studied what had happened in similar countries. I wanted to apply international principles of quality, but tailor-made to Kurdish traditions," he says.

He responded by redoubling his efforts to communicate the purpose of the reforms, which also included curriculum development, moving beyond a single teacher delivering a lecture to a class, the introduction of an electronic admissions system and reforming the teaching of PhDs.

In the end, the government closed three private universities as well as five health-related colleges, three pharmacy colleges and two dentistry ones.

"If we had allowed the system to keep evolving as it was it would have taken at least a generation to fix it - a generation would have been wasted. We knew we had to act fast. It was a risky policy, but it would have been far riskier to do nothing," he says.

A woman shows her ink-dyed finger after voting A woman in Irbil shows her ink-dyed finger after voting in regional elections

The speed of his action was criticised as were aspects of the efforts to improve teaching standards, such as student feedback being used to measure teacher performance and pay. There was also opposition to teachers being asked to engage in professional development once a week.

Prof Brendan O'Leary, director of the programme in ethnic conflict at the University of Pennsylvania, says that a longer process might have worked better.

But he says it was against a background when unprecedented changes were happening in Kurdish society as the region opened up to foreign investment.

"The Kurdistan region is going through a difficult and fast-paced transformation.

"Ideally a long and rich discussion is needed to agree new institutional conditions to enable higher education to flourish in a region emerging from decades of destruction, war, genocide, internal fighting, academic isolation and lack of resources.

"University and institutional reforms are more likely to succeed if all the stakeholders have clear ideas on what to do, when, and at what pace. One should not be surprised if people with vested interests fear reforms," said Prof O'Leary.

No consensus

Thomas Hill, assistant professor at New York University Center for Global Affairs, adds: "I do not believe there is consensus even now that the reforms the former minister wanted to implement would have been in the best interest of the Kurdistan region.

Guarding a polling station in Erbil, Sept 2013 Guarding a polling station during elections in September

"There are many, many people with very conservative views within the higher education sector in the Kurdistan region and many did not and do not like the progressive path the former minister was plotting."

There were areas in which vested interests remained unmoved. Prof Ala'Aldeen could not increase the independence of universities.

The government continues to choose university leaders and universities have been totally dependent on government funding.

Prof Ala'Aldeen put together draft legislation on institutional autonomy, but says the challenge to the status quo was too great to push it through.

He is in close touch with the current government and is pleased that the reforms to improve quality have been maintained, despite the fact that there is still not consensus in favour of them, and says the scholarship programme is already making a difference.

Kurdistan in the 1990s Modernising universities is part of the country's efforts to end its isolation

"Almost 3,000 students have studied abroad, the majority in the UK. Half of these are or will be back by the end of this year. They will provide leadership and bring a breath of fresh air. They will link their institutions to the outside world and break Kurdistan's academic isolation."

Although Kurdistan has its own particular circumstances, Prof Ala'Aldeen says that the problems facing the university system are not unique - and that the model for modernisation could be applied elsewhere in the Middle East.

"The problems are generic and the solutions can be implemented anywhere in the world."

Commentators on Kurdistan's politics agree. Prof O'Leary says: "The Kurdistan region, Iraq and several other states in the Middle East are going through dramatic changes, and in some cases, deeply regrettable authoritarian restorations.

"Most institutions are highly politicised in these societies. If the Kurdistan region can successfully reform its education system, including higher education, it can provide a model for the wider Middle East."

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