How does UKH differentiate itself from other universities in the Kurdistan Region in terms of developing the Kurdistan Region’s human capacity?
The University’s mission and objectives relate fundamentally to the initial idea and conception of the University. In 2006, the Prime Minister, Nechirvan Barzani, initiated the establishment of an English language university that provided a modern education. The idea is largely grounded in his broader vision of Kurdistan's development. The university started with concentrations in politics, social sciences, and management. When the oil industry gained traction in the Region, we also developed a department of natural resources. We now have the largest department of natural resources in the Region. Along the way, we also developed a department of computer science. Our academic programs are therefore designed to align to the demands of the Region’s labor market.
We are a young university. We have only graduated roughly 200 students. The most significant difference between our students and the rest, are that none of our graduates are unemployed. We are unique in that our students have language skills, but also in that we provide a modern education. We focus on independent and critical thinking, along the lines of internationally accepted best practices. This is confirmed by the feedback we receive from companies that employ our students. They say that our students are remarkably different from other students educated in the area, because they know how to communicate, they think critically and independently, and they know that they need to continue to learn once employed.
How is UKH integrated into the Kurdish local economy? Does UKH have internship schemes or graduate employment partnerships with companies active in the Kurdistan Region?
Our students complete internships, and UKH maintains significant integration with industries here. Instead of starting with theoretical topics and moving toward the practical, as is the case in most universities, we reverse the trend. We take our students to different companies and job sites to give them hands-on experience with different industries. This way, students do not have false perceptions of, for example, what a career in engineering involves. It can be a dirty job. One must be very practical and must be prepared to work long hours in a noisy environment. If you do not love it, you will not last long in the industry. So, we try to give our students realistic ideas of what to expect from their education and careers. The goal is not just to give out diplomas; we want our students to invest their time very seriously.
Can you tell us about UKH’s relations with companies in the Region?
To ensure that our education is as dynamic as the Region’s economy, we are in constant dialogue with the companies present in the market. In this way, when they employ our engineers, for example, they will know what skills they are recruiting. Also, if there is any gap in the education we provide, they can discover it quickly, and tell us the need that should to be filled, allowing us to adjust our curricula to the needs of the market. We also ask major companies what areas of research they find important, and expose our students directly to the needs of the market, so that the capacities of our students are already in harmony with the needs of the job market once they graduate. Instead of us sitting down and imagining what is interesting, we ask: what are the questions our students will face? What sources of data do they have? How can that be used in our educational system, so that our students' capacities will be immediately useful for employment upon graduation? That will strengthen the kind of education that we would like to pursue.
What changes—cultural, economic, or otherwise—have you observed between past and present generations of graduates?
Generally, the transition has difficult, but progress is certainly being made. Kurdistan has opened up to the outside world. We see a massive influx of products, from cars to electronics to food. New consumer goods quickly find their way to Kurdistan, so we can buy almost anything that shows up on global markets within a week or two. That expectation is translated to education; that modern education can quickly be implemented here, like the rapid modernization of our retail operations. Of course, with education, development takes much longer. There is no easy way to develop a modern and effective educational system. While you can accelerate the learning process, you cannot just easily buy an education. It requires a lot of training and repetition. You need to practice frequently before mastering a subject. Generally, that is happening, but also there is a high expectation that there is a fast-tracking possibility; that if you get a degree quickly you can quickly get a job because the market is booming.
We try to give our students realistic ideas of what to expect from their education and careers. The goal is not just to give out diplomas; we want our students to invest their time very seriously.
What role is the private sector playing in improving education and human capacity?
The companies that are coming to Kurdistan and employing young people are different and more demanding than those that historically have been in Iraq. My guess is that many graduates will be shocked by the extent to which they have to compete once they join the job market. The new companies here demand high performance and results, some are publicly registered, and they have completely different expectations for performance, hard work, and innovation. This is something new to this generation. They will learn and discover just how hard other people are working. That will come with time.
At our university, we see a different trend already, because what we typically do is to re-educate our students. When students arrive here, they are used to learning by heart or by rote memorization. We try to re-train our students to think critically and independently. This affects many facets of life, as well as academics for our students: How do you think about your life, studies or research methods? Critical thinking becomes a tool. It is useful in meetings and research, but also in debate and discourse. That will help them to sort things out much more easily than just memorization. Once one has developed those critical faculties, it will also strengthen his or her academics. And we have already seen improvement in this regard.
What challenges, would you argue, does Kurdistan’s higher education face?
Higher education needs a lot of investment, not only in infrastructure, but also in the process of thinking, and questioning what is around you. The government has invested in that, but since our educational system has such a strong tradition with memorization, there has been a lack of progressive institution building. War and genocide have, of course, also slowed the institution building process—development of a modern educational system has not been possible until recently. So, what we do now is to evaluate what we will end up with. I am optimistic about the higher education here, because I see the initiatives undertaken by UKH and other universities. Some have established contacts with European and American universities, and they are trying to reform their system. Of course, these changes are gradual and take time. A lot of training internally in institutions is required before there are visible results. However, the first generation of modern educated students and researchers will have consequences on the entire system a generation later. So, keeping in mind that it will take time, the first steps taken are in the right direction.