How has Higher Education in the Kurdistan Region evolved since the establishment of the Ministry of Higher Education (MHE) in 2006?
It has changed in two different ways. Firstly, the number of universities, colleges, and departments has increased. Secondly, it has changed in terms of the number of bureaucratic obstacles that we have encountered. When the Higher Education sector was overseen by a small panel affiliated with the Ministry of Education, only 5 or 6 people were needed. When the MHE was established, it began with 100 employees. Now, it has more than 400. The overall number of personnel, specifically Directors General, also means that there are increased bureaucratic obstacles. It was a very positive step to establish an independent MHE. However, it also meant that these types of problems arose.
It seems like people prefer the public sector to the private. How does this impact the sector?
This tendency to pursue public employment over private must be changed, because the government is not able to employ everyone. Every year, more than 10,000 or 15,000 people apply for government work. How can the government manage to employ them all? Over 10 years, that number increases to 150,000. In 20 years, 300,000. Currently, we have more than 1 million people employed within the government. It’s a big number and it takes a big share of the budget. Right now, the budget of the Higher Education sector is around $12 million, and a large portion of that goes to paying salaries. So, this problem must be studied in order to find efficient and effective solutions.
Do you think the Region should focus more on bringing in foreign professors?
I think foreign professors can play a positive role specifically at the private universities. However, we are certainly in need of foreign experience in higher education. Such experience first comes from professors. It’s a tradition in Iraqi universities to have more foreign professors than Iraqi professors, especially in the medical, engineering, and pharmacy schools.
On the other hand, our professors need to have experience regarding foreign universities in order to develop both their capacity and their field of expertise. Currently, our local professors have limited connections with the outside world. With such limited experiences, they are less able to follow the developments in their field of work. As a result, we need two things: more foreign professors coming here and more local professors sent abroad to have increase experience and to create contact with the outside world.
The new plan calls for 63 new projects for the education sector that are budgeted at 36 trillion IQD, as well as 115 projects for Higher Education at a budget of 26 trillion IQD. This will be spent until 2020.
In terms of sending professors abroad, are there specific disciplines that you think need greater foreign influence?
It is especially important for the fields relating pure sciences, medicine, and engineering. Obviously, there are an increasing number of technological developments in the world, and we must be aware of these advancements. We cannot only become informed by reading an article in a newspaper. We need to see such a development in reality. They must go abroad and visit foreign hospitals to see the technological developments in their treatments. We need to successfully develop the scientific level of our programs. When I look at the world university rankings, I don’t see our universities because they are ranked very low. They aren’t anywhere to be found when you look at the top 500 universities. So, I think it is incredibly important to begin improving our ranking system.
Would that reform come from the government or from the universities themselves
The government must have a specific program with specific points. It needs to leave the details to the MHE and to the individual universities. I think they would also benefit from conferences with a small number of attendees or professional persons in order to make necessary reforms. There have been a few conferences, but they were very large with over 500 attending. Such large conferences dilute the effectiveness of the solutions. Smaller conferences with more informed, well-known attendees could make strong, well thought out plans for reform. Higher education is a dynamic process, so reform is natural.
Is there a system in place for universities to report strengths and weaknesses?
There have been some attempts to establish such a system. However, this path to change now faces obstacles. We are now discussing a new Higher Education Law, and I think some reforms will come from this new draft. There is also a national strategy for education and higher education generated by the Iraqi Government. We are also taking part in this strategy, which is designed to take place over the next 10 years. In order to make the reforms and changes that this plan requests, it will require 26 trillion IQD. The new law, amongst other things, limits the ratio of professors to students in order to conform to global standards. It also pushes for the creation of new universities. We must submit our plan to the Council of Ministers for approval. It’s a unique opportunity to make significant positive changes in the Higher Education sector. The new plan calls for 63 new projects for the education sector that are budgeted at 36 trillion IQD, as well as 115 projects for Higher Education at a budget of 26 trillion IQD. This will be spent until 2020. It was approved in Baghdad and it must be approved here. So, 17% of those numbers will come to the Kurdistan Region.
What is the future of the higher education sector in the Kurdistan Region?
With such reforms, we can reach a good level of development. We will most likely start with step-by-step changes and slowly make the necessary reforms. For example, if you break the entire sector into different sections and then institute small reforms in each, it will create a positive result. So, with the students, changing the examination requirements or further developing the postgraduate levels could have a big impact. With more radical reform, there would most likely be a radical response. Such a reaction could halt our ability to make the change that is so necessary.