Partnership Opportunities for U.S. and Iraqi Universities

By: Michelle Grajek, IREX


IEM Spotlight Newsletter, Vol. 13, Issue 2 - August 2016

As Iraq continues to grapple with instability, higher education has a growing strategic role to play in stabilizing and promoting the recovery of civil society, economic growth, and national security in the country. With universities producing skilled members of the workforce and serving as a catalyst for development and conflict resolution, it is imperative to protect and rebuild the higher education institutions for Iraq’s long-term recovery.

Since 2011, IREX, an international nonprofit, has worked on reforming Iraq’s higher education system. Funded by the U.S. Embassy Baghdad, IREX’s higher education programs aim to expand access to quality education and increase youth employment in Iraq. Through partnerships linking U.S. universities and community colleges to Iraqi universities, and by drawing in industry leaders to advise the universities, IREX is helping Iraqi faculty prepare students for future employment.

Through the Iraq University Linkages Program (ULP) and U.S.-Iraq Higher Education Partnership Program (HEPP), IREX works closely with Iraqi faculty and administrators to update the curriculum in fields such as nanotechnology, renewable energy, energy efficiency, and the English language; develop hands-on interactive instructional strategies in which students directly apply academic theory to solve real-world problems; conduct collaborative research on topics such as environmental health; and introduce new technology platforms for effective teaching and learning. Additionally, both programs support the development of a strong, vibrant workforce and sustainable connections between academia and the private sector. This is achieved through the creation of university career centers, guidance from industry advisory boards, and the fostering of student innovation projects in which student teams work to solve industry problems, while developing twenty-first century skills for success in the workplace.

Through the ULP and HEPP, U.S. and Iraqi higher education institutions have an opportunity to build relationships and programs that will last long after the grant funding is complete. Both partnership programs award small grants of up to $50,000 on a competitive basis to Iraqi and U.S. higher education institutions to work on projects of mutual interest. These partnerships between Iraqi and U.S. universities and community colleges strengthen curricula, enhance research and teaching methods, and build cooperation. The small grants are designed to target higher education needs in Iraq, such as industry engagement; science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) collaborative research projects; distance-learning; digital information systems; the modernization of publication resources; and youth-based approaches to countering violent extremism.

Through the ULP small grants administered in 2014–2015, over 100 faculty participated in capacity-building activities, reaching over 400 of their peers in follow-on trainings at their home institutions. These small grants also led to academic initiatives in 31 academic departments at 17 Iraqi universities, resulting in revised curricula, new and revised course syllabuses, new course packs for existing courses, the creation of ongoing faculty development mechanisms, incorporation of problem-based learning strategies, use of new software in engineering programs, and the introduction of new courses.

Illustrative examples of the small grant partnerships include:

  • Erbil Polytechnic University partnered with Wilkes Community College for a curriculum development project to launch the first automotive technology department at a public university in the Iraqi Kurdistan Region.
  • University of Technology-Baghdad partnered with the American Concrete Institute and North Carolina State University to pilot an extension service through the creation of a certificate program for concrete field testing to address a need by the Iraqi concrete industry for continuing education and professional development.
  • Hawler Medical University partnered with the University at Albany-SUNY’s Global Institute for Health and Human Rights to create a Women’s Health Working Group for research, advocacy, and policy developments on women’s health issues and violence against women.
  • Southern Technical University (STU) partnered with the University of Missouri-Columbia to establish an official English Language Teaching and Learning Center to serve STU students and faculty in order to better prepare graduates for private sector employment and to expand the impact of research conducted at the university.
  • University of Duhok (UoD) partnered with Vanderbilt University to support the development of research leaders at UoD through intensive training and personalized support. Research leaders learn how to revise and improve their research manuscripts to increase their likelihood of being published in high-ranking international journals.

To support the establishment of strong, long-term partnerships, IREX developed resources to provide some guidance in creating partnerships between U.S. and Iraq higher education institutions. These resources are shared with each partner during the initial joint planning meetings to help with the design and implementation of the small grant project. The partnership resources include: a minimum requested standards and best practices framework, cost guidelines, preferred in-country vendors, and budget and work plan templates. Further, as part of IREX’s overall commitment to building the capacity of higher education institutions, IREX produced a suite of tools to provide grantees with technical resources. For example, the Higher Education Institutional Capacity Assessment Tool (HEICAT) assists senior leaders at higher education institutions to conduct comprehensive assessments of institutional capacity and prioritize goals and objectives for growth. The HEICAT can be progressively implemented to set goals, benchmark progress, assess priorities, and/or evaluate results.

Another resource, the Career Center Toolkit provides university administrators with direction and support for improving student workforce preparedness at their institutions. Further, the Data Informed Decision Making Toolkit guides university administrators in effectively incorporating data into strategic planning and decisionmaking processes. IREX provides individual coaching and support to grantees as they use these tools, as needed.

Over the years, the ULP and HEPP partnerships have created strong personal connections and fostered mutual understanding among participating faculty and administrators. Through these partnerships, U.S. universities are contributing to the rebuilding of an effective higher education system and development of the workforce, which are essential components to Iraq’s economic growth and stabilization. U.S. universities interested in partnering with Iraqi universities should contact IREX at For more information about the ULP and HEPP programs, visit

This publication has been developed by NAFSA members for use by their colleagues. No part of this newsletter may be reproduced without written permission from NAFSA: Association of International Educators. The opinions expressed in IEM Spotlight solely reflect those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of NAFSA: Association of International Educators. IEM Spotlight and NAFSA neither endorse nor are responsible for the accuracy of content and/or opinions expressed.