Students accuse state of failing them to aid crowded universities

The number of students in well-educated Iraqi Kurdistan who passed their school-leaving exams this year dropped by half. Students are accusing state officials of deliberately failing them in order to relieve pressure on overcrowded universities.

Last weekend the minister of education in Iraq’s semi-autonomous state of Kurdistan made a shocking announcement. Safeen Dizayee declared that only 18 percent of just over 80,000 students in the region had passed their school leaving exams. What was shocking about the news was that, during the previous year around 36 percent of students had passed the same exam, meaning that the number of passes had decreased by almost half.

Neither the minister nor those responsible for setting the exams, which are mostly sat throughout May, made any official comment on the subject. However a source at the Ministry of Education told NIQASH that the exams and the results were being scrutinized, due to the alarming number of fails.

Students in Iraqi Kurdistan were more vocal on the fact that of 81,256 students who sat exams, only 15,275 had passed. Many more had expected different results altogether.

Sarween Younis, a student in the 12th grade (the final grade before tertiary education) at the Leyla Qasim School in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, couldn’t believe the grades she got were hers. “I was expecting an average of 75 in mathematics but I only got 25. How can I convince myself that the results are fair?”

Another distressed student, Arras Mohammed, who failed in four subjects, had expected an average of 80 percent in his exams; his actual result was 58 percent. “I am sure that those who marked the exams were unfair,” he complained to NIQASH. Mohammed felt as though the exams were a gamble, rather than the results of any hard work: “Luck makes the difference, rather than studying or hard work.”

In fact, most of the students NIQASH spoke with felt that the ministry and the exams committee were at fault, accusing them of attempting to deliberately reduce the number of passes in order to reduce the pressure on already overcrowded universities and technical colleges in the region.

In general, the examination process in Iraqi Kurdistan is conducted mainly behind closed doors. Students may not see how their papers have been marked. Even if a student takes a protest to official channels and asks for a review, the reviewing committee will only recount the grades given; they won’t review the graded answers. According to observers this has made students reluctant to pursue any protests and it has also given rise to a climate of suspicion and doubt.

Over the past three years, Iraqi Kurdistan has seen an increase in students. Ministry of Education figures reveal that the number of students sitting final exams increased by 30,000 in 2011, compared to 2010. Just as in the rest of Iraq, 40 percent of the population in Iraqi Kurdistan is aged under 15 and numbers of locals wanting to access education continues to grow. The Director of Central Admissions in Iraqi Kurdistan, Jwan Jalal, said she feared that it would not be possible to secure places in the state’s universities and tertiary institutions for all those who wanted them.

Almost all the children in Iraqi Kurdistan are enrolled in schools and more and more students enter the state’s education system every year, Mahmoud Othman Marouf of the Department of Statistics in Iraqi Kurdistan told NIQASH. Additionally Marouf noted that the number of students that drop out of school in Iraqi Kurdistan is relatively low when compared to the rest of the country. All of which is putting more strain on the state’s educational institutions.

However a spokesperson from the Ministry of Education refuted the accusations made by dissatisfied students who suspected that officials were deliberately failing them in order to keep up with educational demand. “As we see things, the decline in the number of students who pass is mainly due to the increase in the number of students sitting for the exams,” the spokesperson said. “As well as because of new curricula that has been recently introduced.”

Sulaymaniyah high school teacher Diyari Abdul-Qadir, who is also head of the Independent Teachers’ list, part of the Iraqi Kurdish teacher’s union, had a more wide ranging explanation for the decrease in pass marks. He felt it was systemic: “The current educational system is an extension of the previous one,” he told NIQASH, “and it does not allow students to be creative. How can we expect better results when the exam questions are formulated by a central authority and then marked in the same, old-fashioned and centralised way? It’s an outdated system and you can’t really expect anything better from such a system.”