Institutions of higher education in Kurdistan are key to producing a new generation of graduates that have the skills to harness the opportunities provided by the Region’s growing economy for local benefit. Despite the challenges of transforming a system that has traditionally relied on rote learning and an instructor-centric approach, innovators are introducing Western-style teaching methods that emphasize critical thinking and give students more freedom of choice in their academic pursuits. The KRG Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) is also implementing guidelines to ensure quality in higher education across the Region and teaming with key players in the regional economy to ensure that new graduates have the skillset and experience to succeed in the local workplace.

The MoHE has also established a number of tertiary institutions dedicated to technical and vocational education and training (TVET). The Ministry runs two-year technical institutes and four-year technical colleges across Kurdistan that are managed under three polytechnic universities representing the Erbil, Slemani, and Duhok governorates.

Enrollment in private universities has expanded rapidly. In 2014, Kurdistan’s 12 private universities admitted 12,000 new students, an increase of 5,000 over the year prior.

Quality Assurance Plan

While supportive of the increasing array of choices that the proliferation of private institutions has helped create for students, KRG education officials are keen to point out that their support is dependent on those institutions meeting government standards in terms of quality. The Ministry’s strategy is to prevent higher education from becoming a commercial product. The Ministry has weighed applications for new private universities against the key metrics of a Quality Assurance Plan for higher education that it adopted in 2011, approving just 2 out of the 18 proposals for new private universities it has received since that time.

The quality assurance procedures for higher education outlined in the Plan focus on curriculum reform, increased autonomy for universities and technical institutions, programs offering staff the chance for continuous professional development, and the promotion of research. The strategy also establishes a system to evaluate teaching methods, course materials, exam design, and lecture styles in parallel with a planned accreditation system to ensure that institutes, colleges, and universities conform to acceptable academic standards.

Closing the Skills Gap

Authorities within the KRG have recognized the need to better tailor higher education in both universities and technical institutes to the skillsets demanded by local and international firms operating in the Region. At the moment, many international and local firms cannot find applicants with the technical backgrounds and communication abilities necessary to fill available jobs. In its “Roadmap to Quality,” the Ministry acknowledged the imperative to make higher education in Kurdistan more relevant and effective, explaining, “The higher education institutes were originally developed to suit a country with a closed market and a people with little hope of a high standard of living or rapid educational advancement. In the new Iraq, reformation of higher education is now urgently required in order to harmonize the heretofore antiquated system to the needs of the Region for highly skilled professionals.”

There is an emerging movement to connect employers with intuitions of higher education across the Kurdistan Region. One such initiative is the annual Kurdistan Careers event, where organizers have been educating job seekers on the importance of internships and connecting local and international companies interesting in hosting interns with workers and students looking to gain real world experience.

Universities and technical institutes themselves often struggle with obsolete course materials and fail to provide opportunities for students to receive on-the-job training or real world experience, resulting in new graduates finding themselves at a competitive disadvantage in the labor market. This situation has contributed to the growing momentum behind efforts to bring higher education and business leaders together in an institutionalized way to design a modern, continuously updated curriculum that ensures students are ready to enter the job market when they graduate.

Referencing these projects and the deficiencies they are trying to overcome, Dr. Nawzad Kameran, a partner at Kurdistan Careers, explained, “At most universities everything is theoretical. Mostly the private universities have been responding by putting in work placements, career planning, and outreach to companies to establish a bridge with students. We are trying to change the culture so students see the reality of things in the field.”

The KRG has also founded a Human Capacity Development Program that seeks to cultivate professional skills and leadership abilities among students from the Kurdistan Region by giving them the opportunity to earn a degree abroad. In 2014, the program gave 4,351 of the Region’s most talented students the opportunity to study abroad for the 2014 academic year with the help of government-sponsored scholarships. During the same period, 670 of those students finished their foreign academic pursuits and returned to join Kurdistan’s labor force. Scholarship recipients benefit from language-skills training at centers set up by the MoHE in preparation for their studies abroad. The KRG has spent over $82 million on the Human Capacity Development Program, and plans to expand it in the years ahead.

Both the public and private higher education sectors have seen rapid growth over the last two decades, and overall enrollment in higher education in Kurdistan stood at over 115,000 in 2013.

Strengthening International Ties

A growing number of universities in Kurdistan are establishing connections with their peers abroad in an effort to expand opportunities for their students and benefit from international expertise. In 2014, Soran University and the University of Leicester signed a partnership agreement to establish the International Centre for Natural Resources Research at Soran’s campus northeast of Erbil. The center will concentrate primarily on sustainability in regional resource management and provide students the chance to do a split PhD involving studies abroad at the University of Leicester and collaboration with professors there. The University of Leicester has also partnered with UKH to establish an English Language Teaching and Testing Centre there.

Under the Kurdistan Rural University Partnership Program (KRUPP) administered by the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX), Virginia Tech has similarly partnered with the University of Halabja, the University of Zakho, and the University of Raparin to develop student-centered teaching methods that hone critical thinking and practical problem-solving abilities. The last year also saw AUIS partner with Stanford University under the Iraq Legal Education Initiative (ILEI) to develop a course sequence in legal studies and produce modern, high-quality course materials on the legal systems of Iraq and the Kurdistan Region. The Initiative’s end goal is the creation of a full law program at AUIS.

Focus: AUDK

The American University Duhok, Kurdistan (AUDK) opened its doors in December 2014, bringing a focus on applied research and leadership skills to the Kurdistan Region. The university will offer undergraduate degrees in public policy, design and media studies, management and finance, and computer science, taught in an English-language environment that emphasizes academic freedom for both students and faculty. AUDK has also established research centers focused on improving quality of life in the Duhok governorate. AUDK's Center for Displacement and Migration is currently working with the KRG to develop strategies to cope with the refugee crisis currently affecting Kurdistan.