The education sector in the Kurdistan Region has expanded dramatically in recent years. However, the Region’s extremely young and rapidly expanding population continues to push for further growth in the overall capacity of the sector. The education system itself, which has largely been built from the ground up since the early 1990s, has struggled to keep pace. To combat this issue, the KRG has emphasized strong development in the education sector. 16% of the KRG’s budget for 2013 was allocated for the education and higher education sectors. Already large in size, the Ministry of Education (MOE) has become largest KRG Ministry, employing 24% of the Region’s workforce. In addition, primary schools, secondary schools, and universities have done their best to keep pace with expanding enrollment figures, with each of the three systems vigorously exploring options to ensure continued forward progress.

The KRG has two ministries that address education. The MOE administers primary and secondary education, while the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MHE) administers university level education. Additionally, the private sector has become increasingly involved at all levels of the educational system. SABIS, a Lebanese private education provider and one of the largest actors in the Region’s private education sector, has opened three Choueifat international private schools in Erbil and Slemani, and recently opened SABIS University in Erbil. Like many other industries, private schools and universities are eligible for Kurdistan Board of Investment licensing, and since 2006 have invested $668 million into 16 BOI licensed education projects. In addition to private schools and universities, the MOE has entered into public-private partnerships with SABIS, leveraging their expertise to operate seven public-private international schools.

Education in Numbers

Budget Share16%
Total Investment (2006-2013)$668 million
Primary & Secondary Schools2,641
Primary & Secondary Enrollment1.7 million
Public Universities13
University Students (2013)115,000

Primary & Secondary Education

Despite the aforementioned demographic challenges to the Region’s schools, the Kurdistan Region boasts the highest primary school completion rates (65%) in all of Iraq, as well as a proportionately high rate of 95.9% for net primary school enrollment (4.5% higher than for the rest of Iraq). Similarly, the Region averages 88.9% net student enrollment in secondary education, with literacy rates reflecting this dedication to education (92.3% for males aged 15-24 and 81.6% for females of the same range). These positive statistics do not hide the fact that the Region’s education needs are growing. Indeed, the total number of primary and secondary students in Kurdistan increased from 843,000 in 2003 to 1.70 million in 2012 (a 98% overall increase).

The KRG has heavily invested into the physical infrastructure of education, with the total number of public primary and secondary facilities increasing from 1,459 schools in 2003 to 2,641 in 2012 (an 81% increase). Moreover, as indicated by Dr. Asmat M. Khalid, the KRG’s Minster of Education, the Region has plans in place to further this growth by establishing 500 new schools over the next two years. In addition to this growth, a total of 165 primary and secondary private schools have been established in the Region; these facilities are also helping to increase the overall capacity of the present system.

The KRG is also working to improve the quality of teaching and learning in its classrooms. As noted in reports completed by the Ministry of Planning (MOP), since 2009 the KRG has taken steps to bring primary and secondary education to international standards by implementing numerous reforms. As part of these modernizing strategies, the government implemented a more rigorous K-12 curriculum and made education compulsory through 9th grade (it was previously only compulsory through 6th grade). In addition, steps were taken to improve the overall quality of education by requiring that new teachers have at least a bachelor’s degree and attend recently implemented teacher training programs. It is expected that these adjustments to primary and secondary schools will help to better prepare students for the universities of the Kurdistan Region.

Higher Education

There are currently a total of 115,000 students enrolled in the 13 public universities and 11 private universities of the Kurdistan Region. The vast majority of these students attend public universities, which tend to be much larger than private universities and do not charge tuition. Most of the universities in the Region are very new: with the exception of Salahaddin University, nearly all of the local universities are less than two decades old. However, because of the Region’s stability, Kurdistan’s universities are drawing higher-level professors and students from historically more prestigious universities in Baghdad, Basra, and Mosul. While this process is providing the universities a boost in competitiveness, it also places further stress on the capacity of the Region’s higher education system.

Kurdish Students Playing Basketball
University of Sulaimani

Kurdistan’s public universities face a difficult situation: they operate on a fixed budget, but are pressured to enroll ever-higher numbers of students, and they operate within a centralized, bureaucratic system. However, initiated under the former Minister of Higher Education, Dlawer Ala’Aldeen, and continued under the current Minister, Dr. Ali Saeed, the MHE has implemented a major reform package for public higher education. Aspects of this package include measures to democratize and decentralize the university system, giving each university more independence. This will provide university administrations and faculty more autonomy to develop their universities. The reforms also include creating an electronic, streamlined admissions procedure to improve student admissions processes, and increasing professional development and evaluation of faculty.

To address the growing demand for increased capacity in the Region’s higher education facilities, the MHE has been quickly building additional universities throughout the Region; public universities in Ranya and Halabja were opened in 2011, Zakho University was opened in 2010, and Soran University opened in 2009.

Finally, many employers in the private sector argue that students coming from the Region’s universities do not have the in-demand technical skills or abilities. The MHE has therefore opened a series of schools, known as technical and vocational education and training (TVET) institutes, which will provide students with the practical capacities that employers demand. According to plans established by the MOP, the KRG will work to improve the relationship between what students learn and what employers demand. The MOP’s plan articulates that the initiative “will entail developing a closer collaboration between TVET institutions and the private sector in the development of curricula, aligning the TVET occupational mix with the occupational demands of the economy, and increasing the opportunities that the private sector offers for on-the-job training.”

Private and Independent Universities

Other universities are reshaping the possibilities of education in the Region more drastically. The Iraqi public university system relies heavily on the “baccalaureate” college entrance exam to define not only which universities a student is admitted to, but which concentration he or she will study once there. The American University of Iraq, Sulaimani (AUIS) is a private, non-profit university that provides an American style, liberal arts education. Unlike the public universities in the Region, AUIS encourages students to take a broad general education course load before declaring a major. This is a fairly radical break with the Region’s public university system. Similarly, the University of Kurdistan, Hewler (UKH) is a public, independent university based on the British university structure, with a strong focus on critical thinking. In addition to these models, the number of private, for-profit universities in the Region has expanded as well. Established in the Region in the past decade, many of these universities offer coursework in English, and provide additional capacity to the crowded university system.

16% of the KRG’s budget for 2013 was allocated for the education and higher education sectors.

Global Outlook

The Region’s universities are increasingly looking internationally to bring their operations and academics to global standards. Students are doing the same, in order to increase competitiveness with international businesses and gain global insight. AUIS, for example, is pursing academic accreditation in the US, and has academic relationships with premier universities in the US, including Stanford and UCLA. UKH, similarly, has international partner universities in London and throughout the UK. Universities have historically taught in Kurdish, Arabic, and English, but growing demand for English proficiency has led many universities to teach entirely in English. Finally, the MHE encourages international exchange though its ‘Human Capacity Development Program,’ which is designed to send recent graduates from Kurdish public universities and complete postgraduate coursework in international universities, to further improve their international intelligence, language skills, and professional abilities.

Since 2006, there has been $668 million invested into 16 BOI licensed education projects.