U.S.-Iraq Higher Education Conference

On June 25, 2013, the Iraqi Cultural Center in Washington hosted an all-day conference in which about a hundred representatives of American universities and colleges met with Iraqi officials discussed the current state and future plans for educating Iraqi students in America. The Iraqi government has earmarked ten billion dollars for the training of its students in foreign countries, including the U.S., and many American institutions have already been taking part for several years. Three Iraqi entities are involved in administration of the program: the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, The Higher Committee for Education Development in Iraq (HCED), and the Kurdistan Regional Government Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research. Representatives of each of these entities addressed the group. The U.S. State Department is co-operating with the Iraqis to make the program a success and has appointed Lorna Middlebrough to the post of Education Specialist for Iraq, an unprecedented position.

The Iraqi government and the Kurdish Regional Government are furnishing multi-year fellowships that include all tuition, housing, family support, and other aspects that will ensure the success of the students in studying abroad. The funding is for masters’ degrees as well as for doctorates, and the length of support is geared to five years, but it was also indicated that for specific students in certain fields, there could be an extension of the time.

It became clear that the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education is mainly focused on science, technology, engineering, and medicine (STEM), which have traditionally been the strongest areas in Iraqi higher education. But there is a stated interest in other disciplines.

The Higher Committee for Education Development is also interested in STEM, but is also committed to sending students for training in other fields, including social sciences and humanities.

The Kurdish Regional Government, according to its representative, was open to any field of study, and stressed the support in the humanities, although, again, most of the fellowships have been and will probably remain in STEM.

After presentations by the Iraqis and State Department participants, the meeting then heard from American university administrators and faculty with successful and growing programs for Iraqi students at their institutions. Members of the audience added instances of good practice in dealing with Iraqi students at their campuses. Both the Americans and the Iraqis stressed the need for conditional admissions so that the students could come for up to a year of English language training (ESL).

English has been taught in Iraqi schools from grade school up, but the deterioration of the educational system, beginning with the Iran-Iraq War and exacerbated by the Sanctions of the 1990s, has resulted in a generation with a much lower grasp of the language. Certain fields, such as medicine and the sciences, have lectures and texts in English, so there is for them less need for ESL courses before entering American academic programs. But the great majority of Iraqi students are not able to pass TOEFL at a high enough level to be admitted without ESL. Up to now, the great majority of U.S. institutions taking Iraqi students are state schools, and the programs tend to be in STEM.

TAARII’s institutional members should think very seriously about getting involved in the Iraqi fellowship program. These students will be Iraq’s future faculty, university administrators and government officials in Iraq. Anyone who did research in Iraq during the past fifty years knows how essential it was to have a fellow alumnus, a former student, or a colleague from an exchange program to vouch for the person doing the research and the value of the work itself. Much of the finest research has been done with Iraqi colleagues. With the funding from the Iraqi side, the real investment for American institutions and faculty is in time and attention.

But not all universities are willing to give a conditional admission, and partially for this reason, only a few of TAARII’s institutional members are participating in the training of Iraqis, and that is usually for sciences. Rutgers has more than sixty Iraqis enrolled at this time, and Georgetown has begun to accept them. The University of Chicago medical school, after a lot of groundwork, has agreed to bring Iraqi doctors for short refresher programs in cardiology. But what about the humanities and social sciences? Many Iraqis are going for training in these fields to Europe, especially Britain. But Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, and the other universities with strong programs in Mesopotamian studies ought to be taking a leading role in the education of Iraqi archaeologists, art historians, and cuneiform scholars. But first, conditional admission and a realistic attitude to the GRE must be worked out, and it should be done quickly.