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the solution to iraq’s political problems? better education

Christine van den Toorn
Iraq’s education system relies heavily on rote learning and answers online. American educator, Christine van den Toorn, who worked at the American University of Iraq between 2009 and 2013, argues that…
5.06.2014  |  Sulaymaniyah
Graduates in Baghdad. Pic: Getty
Graduates in Baghdad. Pic: Getty

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Last Saturday members of the third graduating class of the American University of Iraq, a four-year liberal arts school in the semi-autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, entered the job market. However they entered a different part of the market than the majority of graduates in Iraq: The private sector.

While it is estimated that a whopping 50 percent of the workforce in Iraqi Kurdistan, and around 35 percent in Iraq, work for the government, almost all the graduates of the American University of Iraq, Sulaymaniyah - or AUIS – end up working for private companies.

In addition, while unemployment remains high in Iraq, at 18 percent for 15-to-24 year olds according to the UN, almost all American University graduates are employed.

The fact that they are, and the fact that they are employed in the private sector, is important for a variety of reasons. But it can also be problematic.

Firstly and most obviously, it is important because educational reform is key to building a healthy private sector in Iraq, and an economically independent private sector is an essential part of the establishment of a democratic state.

Currently, one of the main ways regimes in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan maintain their power is through widespread employment patronage, indebting the majority of the population to ruling parties for jobs and handouts.

This dynamic is on display at election times – recent examples include State of Law candidate, Mahmoud al-Hasan, being caught distributing land to election supporters in Diwaniya. This is not an isolated incident. And it is only through removing this dependence that there can truly be free and fair elections where Iraqi citizens are able to vote for a policy-based platform and not for a partisan-based pay check.

Iraqis flock to the public sector for work because of incentives, particularly pensions, and job security. As Hashim Khaleel, an assistant manager at international financial firm, Ernst and Young in Baghdad, put it, Iraqis “prefer to go to the government sector” because of “more benefits”, such as “a piece of land, pensions and loans”.

Because of decades of war, sanctions and violence, Iraqis also fear that international companies could pull out of the country at any moment, which leaves the public sector a more reliable, secure option.

However the large majority of AUIS graduates say they see no potential in public sector work. They believe their talents will be wasted in the corrupt, bureaucratic, wasta-based system where, as one graduate puts it, “eight people are hired for the job of one”. (In Arabic, wasta translates roughly to who you know, not what you know.)

“With all I have learned at AUIS, how could I work in the public sector?” says another graduate. “It’d be frustrating and I wouldn’t be able to do anything.”

Interestingly there are also practical issues preventing AUIS students from entering the public sector: Graduates are actually ineligible to work in the public sector outside of Iraqi Kurdistan because the school is not accredited by the central government in Baghdad.

There are two layers to the problem with accreditation. One involves the fact that AUIS does not comply with an August 21, 1996, law signed by former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Many consider that the law was formulated to intentionally make independent universities anything but independent – which is understandable considering Hussein's politicization of an education system that became yet another propaganda tool in the service of his regime.

However in modern day Iraq, Baathist era laws are often circumvented and it’s generally thought that the fact that Iraq’s government has refused to exempt AUIS from the 1996 law can be traced back to rivalries between the semi-independent region and the federal government in Baghdad. Locals say that the Iraqi government does not want to legitimize an American University in Iraqi Kurdistan – especially when Baghdad doesn’t have one. It’s seen as another step toward state building by the Iraqi Kurdish, something Iraq’s Kurds have over Iraq’s Arabs.

The fact of the matter though, is that this non-accreditation hurts both Iraqis and Kurds.

Because while AUIS’ potential young leaders are obviously important for Iraq's private-sector growth, they are also needed in the government. And many do want to be “engaged citizens”, to work in public service to improve their country, as Iraqi Kurdish student Dina Dara, valedictorian for the class of 2014, stated in her commencement speech.

Dara is passionate about public policy. She’s going on to study at a leading professional school of international affairs in the US, the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, because, as she says, she wants to be equipped to “write better policies to improve the Kurdistan region and Iraq”.

People like Dara and her fellow graduates are important because in Iraq, stability and reconciliation will come through both economic growth and the establishment of democratic, federal institutions that are accountable and transparent.

But who will build those institutions? Only a well-educated, civic-minded Iraqi population can build these political and economic structures – and this means that educational reform is key to Iraq's future.

Right now Iraqi schools are not teaching the skills needed - analytical reading and writing, critical thinking - to achieve this. And this is not only about establishing – or accrediting – more institutions like AUIS, or even more private secondary schools like Baghdad College. More importantly, it is about an overhaul of the curriculum and pedagogy in Iraq’s public schools.

Look at the broader society in which most young Iraqis have grown up – there is sectarian hatred, division and violence. In addition, analysts often say that one of Iraq’s biggest political problems is that Iraqi politicians cannot share power and refuse to listen to one another; there is an “us or them” mentality, which comes partially from the country’s complex history.

However some of those attitudes also come from the education system. At the very least a better education system could teach the next generation of Iraqis about the importance of listening to others and sharing power and thinking critically, after considering the viewpoints of others.

Many students leave high school and university without reading widely, conducting academic research or writing original essays. Lecture-based classes offer little room for the exchange of ideas and studies require memorization rather than analysis and understanding. Professors will hand out writing from the Internet and require students to memorize, then regurgitate the facts in tests. Many assignments merely require students to find an essay or Wikipedia entry on an assigned topic, print it out and turn it in.

At AUIS, Wikipedia is all but banned. Classes are in English – because English will be needed if Iraqis want to engage with much of the rest of the world. And regardless of their major, students are required to take general education classes which give them a foundation in topics like history, economics and political science. Additionally three recent graduates now working in Iraq’s finance sector – two are from Baghdad, the other is from Halabja – agree that one of the most important things they got at AUIS was “exposure to different systems and perspectives”, a different “world view” and their ability to work with foreigners in demanding environments.

“I understand their mentality,” one of the Baghdadis said. “And I can do what they ask me to do, relate to their problems and work with them on solutions.”

It may be about social norms in Iraqi Kurdistan and the broader Middle East but in the workplace, superiors – even other co-workers – often do not reward junior employees who question, suggest or speak up if they have ideas. One AUIS graduate says that working harder or trying to be the best is seen as “showing off” or “being proud”.

Students are not encouraged to speak up, to question or to discuss either. They are not taught about different perspectives or how to back up their arguments. And all of this means they will not have these skills when they go into the private or the public sector. Yet these are the skills they need, to discuss and to debate in their own parliament and to write their own legislation.

This is not about imposing a different culture and language on the people of Iraq either. It is just about better education, about looking at the world's best practices in education and using them in Iraq to build the economy and to evolve better governance.

To increase the supply of civic- and business-minded critical thinkers in the country, the responsible Iraqi ministries should overhaul the curriculum and pedagogy at all educational levels and open new private liberal arts institutions. Last December Iraq's Minister of Higher Education, Ali al-Adeeb not only outlined such suggestions in the Chronicle of Higher Education, he heartily endorsed them.

“The youth of Iraq need much more than just a safe haven for study,” al-Adeeb wrote. “They must learn once again the tolerance, mutual respect, open-mindedness, and critical-thinking skills that made Iraq an intellectual capital and haven for all of the Abrahamic faiths for centuries. We have seen the effect that such institutions as the American University of Beirut and the American University in Cairo have had on generations of young Arabs. We want that today in Iraq.”

This is something that Iraqi politicians and US investors can agree upon. As investorGeoffrey Batt, founder of the Euphrates Fund, says, AUIS is, “a vital component to Iraq's future prosperity. Ideally more schools like it will take root in cities outside Kurdistan.”

While some have raised concerns that teaching in English and opening private schools creates elites and more divisions, in fact, other examples have shown that such innovations raise the level of education throughout a country - the hallowed American University in Cairo and the American University of Beirut, beacons of learning for decades, attest to this.

All – or any – of the above will take time. So in the meantime this year’s graduates of AUIS plan to “teach others in our community the tools and techniques we have learned here,” as 2014’s public-spirited valedictorian, Dina Dara, says. Of course, until such reforms become commonplace, young Iraqis whose education has taught them to think “beyond the traditional conventions, beyond what others suggest . . . may struggle,” she admits. “But isn’t this how nations are built?”