Twilight for Kurdish academics

Professors and students in Iraq’s Kurdistan fear political rivalry is unraveling the fabric of their education system.

Kurdistan boasts the world's fastest growing economy, fueled mainly by oil export and Turkish investment [AFP]

The highway to Mosul passes by Dohuk University onto the plains of Nineveh. Standing on the sprawling campus at dusk, under lengthening shadows cast by the concrete skeleton of a half-finished gymnasium, Professor Hakim traces the blinking line of headlights across the purple valley. “Here are two Iraqs. This one, Iraqi Kurdistan, is the new paradise in which I am blessed to safely exercise my mind,” he says. The lights in Mosul – sometimes called the world’s most dangerous city – flicker in the distance, reminding him of a country in ruins less than an hour away.

An economic miracle has been forged in the semi-autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, tucked precariously into the dangerous corners of Iran, Syria, and eastern Turkey. Today, the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) in Erbil boasts the world’s second-fastest growing economy, fueled mainly by oil export and Turkish investment. Safety from the daily bombings, shootings, and kidnappings common across the rest of Iraq breeds uneasy prosperity.

A professor and former dean of the College of Law and Politics, Hakim understands this story from inside the classroom. There, however, the narrative of the KRG’s resurgence is not as bright. Problems of rising politicisation amongst faculty, falling administrative standards, and failing students raise serious questions about the region’s ability to adapt to prosperity. “There is trouble in paradise, and if these concerns are not confronted, all the promises slip away,” Hakim says derisively.

At universities across Iraqi Kurdistan, similar sentiments erode confidence in the rapid growth since 2003. “While thousands of professors are thanking God to be here and safe,” explains Kameran, a professor of history in Erbil’s Salahaddin University, “they are deeply troubled by the sluggishness of their institutions to modernise at pace with the rest of the country.” Another professor sitting nearby adds, “the process just does not work”.

Attempts at reform have been met by an obstinate governments in Erbil and Baghdad. “The system today was designed for a centralised country, closed to the outside world,” Kameran says, “and this is a part of Saddam’s legacy in Iraqi Kurdistan we have not overcome.”

These dual, sometimes paradoxical, pressures of history and progress define the challenges facing academics in the KRG. According to many professors, the sustainability of the region’s miraculous growth, and its ability to confront the troubles descending across the rest of Iraq, depends on reconciling these pressing concerns.

‘A deeply political process’

Sitting in his dark, sparsely furnished office at Salahaddin University, Halil, a political historian, asks the three other professors who share this room to leave. Taking a sip of tea as the others sidle out, he smiles with only a hint of worry in his eyes. “I trust them all,” he says, “and I have no fear to speak my mind, but maybe it is best to do so without so much company”.

Halil moved to Kurdistan in 2010 after the security situation in Mosul, “the home” where he taught for 25 years, became unbearable. Since 2003, over 500 professors and students have been assassinated across Iraq — on 16 December 2013 a journalism student was shot dead on Mosul University’s campus. “There is no comparison between Kurdish and Iraqi universities. Here I can speak without fear for my life,” he says. Yet his academic freedom is not unlimited. “Because I am safe physically does not mean I do not fear for my job,” he explains.

His colleagues now standing outside the door chatting with passing students, Halil describes the “two sorts of academics at my university: those who are pure and those who are influenced by politics and use academics for their personal benefit.” Many academics, he claims, have become subordinate to political factions. The choice between these “two paths,” he concludes, “is indicative of a general decline in education across Iraqi Kurdistan, and the Middle East.”

Even alone, old habits resurface. “I am still deeply grateful for the latitude of expression that is impossible for my colleagues in Baghdad, Basra, or Mosul,” he slips in quickly before glancing nervously at the closed door.

The frustration Halil hides in his words stems from the confluence of outdated administrative techniques and partisan competition. Sabah, a plasma physicist at Dohuk University, laments that “Kurdish university administrations have become minefields of local, provincial, and national interests — a deeply political process” that professors must navigate.

“The ministers are not educated. They are veterans of war, sanctions, and occupation,” he explains, gazing across Dohuk’s sprawling new campus one sunny afternoon. “The growth they command is purely economic. They throw money at the universities but do not understand the need for these funds to be allocated in a fair, unbiased fashion. They do not understand the need for an equitable voice, and they do not care,” he concludes with an emphatic flourish. 

Kameran, who shares his colleague’s concerns, sees the situation in starker terms: “Do you see any good universities or any real democracy in oil countries?” The rapidity of Kurdistan’s growth stretches the universities beyond capacity. “We have built a state in 10 years,” Kameran says, “but I need 30 or 40 years to build a person — the development has outpaced what we can do as teachers.”

These comments highlight the challenge deciding the future of Kurdish academics. “These institutions have become places where immediate personal gain replaces scholarly duties,” Kameran explains. Halil later adds: “This is a fast-paced government, but the university is not. Everyone wants a piece of the prosperity, which means they do not take the long-term view necessary to train qualified and honest students. Professors say what they think politicians want to hear, just to get a higher position, a spot on national television, or a salary raise.”

Kurdistan’s deep political cleavages further exacerbate the problem. The region is divided between the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), the opposition Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), and its recent offshoot, the Gorran movement. The KDP, led by the Barzani family, is strongest in the capital and Dohuk, while the opposition commands opinion in Sulaimaniya.

Although the parties’ ideological differences are subtle, their fierce competition trickles into university classrooms. “If I speak publicly in support of PUK policy, I will never become a professor in Erbil or Dohuk. The same is true of my colleagues at universities in the KDP zone,” explains Shereen, a linguist at Sulaimaniya University. “This situation creates hate, not love, and certainly not unity,” she says.

In this environment, reform has been stillborn. The last higher education minister, Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, a microbiologist from Nottingham, was ousted in 2012 for his controversial attempts to regulate private universities and impose strict quality control at institutions across the region. “He was the best man we have ever had in this post,” declares Fraidoon, a communications director at Sulaimaniya University. “But his crime was caring too much about the students, the professors,” he says. All the way in Dohuk, on Kurdistan’s opposite border, Sabah complains that the ministry has “now reverted to its old, sluggish, and biased ways.”

He concludes with a half-smile: “this is one thing I can agree with my PUK friends on.” The underlying frustration coloring his words is only barely hidden by nervous laughter.

The character of democracy emerging in Kurdistan is colored by the limits Sabah’s joke embodies. “Freedom does not mean just to talk, it is responsibility – when you talk, one must listen, and answer. Unfortunately nobody is doing that here. Plenty are talking but nobody listens,” Kameran says. “It is half freedom,” he concludes.   

Exporting talent

Facing these political obstacles at home, professors look outside Kurdistan for the tools they need. Their motivations are clear. “Without support and a forum to share my needs and discoveries, I cannot pursue the groundbreaking scholarship I know is possible,” Sabah explains.

He is lucky. Every month, Sabah sends theoretical data to Arkansas State University in the United States, where it can be processed and tested on the proper equipment. “I get results back to Iraq after six months, but if I had a laboratory, I could run the same experiment in a day,” he sighs. “I must export my talent to America,” he says, “but when I shared my problem, I was told, ‘if you can do it overseas, why should the KRG spend this money?’ There was no discussion.”    

Similar arrangements are common in all fields. The US Government has slowly kept pace with this trend. In August 2013 it launched a grant competition designed to “improve university administration, and maximize connections between the public, private and academic sectors in the Iraqi Kurdistan region to better serve its academic and public constituencies.” American universities have independent agreements with a number of other regional universities, including New York University in Dohuk. Sabah, like his colleagues, thinks these programs are “steps in the right direction, but ultimately only keep [the KRG] from spending the resources it has in an intelligent way.”

Professors know that the money politicians may be saving in the classroom is nevertheless being wasted. The foreign investment, labor, and skill fueling Iraqi Kurdistan’s growth displaces domestic expertise. With a look of deep exasperation, Sabah points to the fiber optic cables being laid across campus. “Why is a Turkish company being paid $400,000 to develop this network? Iraqi engineers – who would do the same work for a fraction of that cost — are being ignored,” he says, shaking his fist at an invisible politician: “We want to serve our country, but our country is not letting us.”

For Dawood, an administrator in the Office of International Affairs at Dohuk University, the problem is more complex: “Some Iraqi leaders make the false connection between opening universities to the world and surrendering them to an outside power or influence.” The result, he says, is that a very low percentage of graduates are sufficiently trained to the country’s market, thus fueling the need for foreign assistance. “Without quality graduates,” he says, “economic growth cannot bring true prosperity. It is not sustainable if we cannot drive modernization ourselves.”

So far, neither the KRG nor the government in Baghdad has addressed these concerns. Dawood, who earned his PhD in Norway, is adamant about the proper solution: “The government pursues a policy of blind expansion, just to see a new center or library rise from the dust. Yet they are throwing their resources away if there is nobody to fill these spaces. We need leadership with vision, who can build a bridge between Iraq, Europe, and the United States. This is the way to start academic dialogues.”

Sabah is more despondent. Almost shouting over the construction noise nearby, he exclaims, “If you do not engage the world, you only have Iraq. What do you have in Iraq? Nothing.” As cranes grind overhead, it is difficult not to feel the urgency in his voice.

‘There is no hope here’

At the University of Sulaimaniya’s Linguistics Department, in a small office hidden at the end of a dark hallway, the only small window is blocked by stacks of dusty manuscripts and research articles. Looking with a thin smile on her drawn face at the yellow light coming through the old paper, Shereen sighs. “This is a reminder of prouder days, when my colleagues and students were writing, and were being read,” she says. The papers do not look as if they have been inventoried in years. Shereen is not sure what, precisely, she has saved. “Does it matter,” she asks in a half whisper: “I did it for my own sanity, to prove there was a brighter past.”

Her despondency is remarkable. The University of Sulaimaniya just finished construction of a beautiful campus on the city’s outskirts. The administration has set new guidelines for its teaching staff – every professor must publish an article in an international journal before being considered for promotion. Graduate students are encouraged to study in Europe and the United States. An official in the university president’s office, Ali, proudly declares, “Iraqis come to us to be educated.”

“I know I should not be looking to history,” Shereen concludes, “but I feel as if I have been cheated by the present. We have become stuck in the past. We do not spring forward from it.”

Her nostalgia is born from a deeper sense of betrayal – not by politicians, administrators, or investors – but by a lost moment. “In 2003, we knew our situation would improve. Professors who fled would return. Our students would be invigorated by the freedoms they earned through their sufferings. But we were wrong.”

As a significant portion of the professorate politicizes, the quality of the students under their care has deteriorated. “They have no motivation,” Kameran laments, “there are no opportunities for them here. Why should they work hard?” Although universities in the booming KRG produce thousands of graduates each year, the unemployment rate hovers at around 50 percent. “Our children watch their home rise from the desert, but know they are not part of this resurrection,” Kameran concludes.

The economic difficulties faced by graduates are shared by the universities training them. Higher education across Iraq is free. “Students attend because it is easy. We, however, must struggle. There is simply not enough money to support the students we have,” Ali says.

“They arrive, expecting to benefit from their education, and they are doomed to disappointment,” Shereen adds.

These problems are compounded by the centralised education system. Within this framework, university administrators cannot voice individual grievances. “In Dohuk, we have very different problems than they do in Sulaimaniya or Erbil” Dawood says, “yet we are all pushed into the same mold. To prosper, we must break free from this structure.”

Shereen offers a more bitter analysis. “The true scientists among us have been left with pressure on both sides,” she says, “how can we teach students who do not want to learn, collaborate with professors who work only for personal gain, or appeal to politicians who do not understand us?” These rumors, rather than facts, drive the dissent at northern Iraq’s academies. Their potency speaks to the swelling frustration among the country’s professorate.

Waiting for the Future

The sun finally sets over Dohuk University’s campus. “Maybe tomorrow will bring a new perspective, or a new set of promises that will be broken,” Hakim says. He sighs, his breath visible in the freezing wind: “what can we do but wait?”

This question is being asked by professors and students across Iraqi Kurdistan.

The KRG’s emergence as an Iraqi economic haven since 2003 has been miraculous. Yet the shadows cast across the construction sites at the region’s universities could presage coming twilight to a bright region. These challenges illuminate a broader question facing Iraq after 30 years of violence: How can this growth be sustained if there are not qualified individuals to manage and take advantage of it?

“We do not know the answer,” Hakim sighs, “but I do know that Iraq’s future hinges on it.

Source: Al Jazeera