Higher Education in Iraq

Higher education in Iraq suffered in the aftermath of U.S. military action, but U.S. colleges and universities are building partnerships to help rebuild higher education opportunities for Iraqis.

Iraq has suffered from decades of isolation and war, capped by the U.S.-led invasions and control in 2011. Higher education was among the major casualties in both countries, with higher education personnel, infrastructure, and budgets depleted from the ongoing conflicts.

But partnerships between U.S. higher education institutions and organizations and their counterparts in Iraq formed in the last decade have proven a lifeline of support for their beleaguered academies.

The partnerships tend to be workshops or exchange programs between the United States and administrators, academics, and students from Iraq , many heavily subsidized by U.S. government organizations. Some aspects of the exchange programs tend to be one-way, with students and professors from Iraq tending to visit the United States far more than visits in the other direction. U.S. academics have also been heavily involved in staffing and supporting some of the new higher education institutions that have been created in recent years. In addition, scholarships to educate graduate students abroad funded by Iraqi government organizations are ramping up some exchanges.

Challenges Create Opportunities

If the challenges for partnerships between institutions in the United States and Iraqis greater than partnerships for those involving more traditional exchange partners, there are arguably greater opportunities, too.

“In the Kurdistan Region of Iraq [in the north], there are 13 public and 10 private universities, and many are very new and have developed in the past five years,” says Michelle Grajek, director for political and diplomatic affairs at the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), who helps administer scholarships from the KRG's Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research to students studying abroad. “U.S. universities really want to get involved now. It’s a fantastic opportunity to build a relationship from the ground up, which can be easier.”

With the withdrawal of United States troops from Iraq in 2011, and with political turmoil and violence continuing to roil the country, the question remains as to whether seeds planted by exchanges will blossom into long-lasting partnerships and, significantly, whether U.S. government bodies will continue to fund them.

The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Higher Education in Iraq

Iraq is one of the great centers of Muslim culture and civilization, with a strong educational system as late as the 1960s.

Baghdad was once the capital of the Arab World and a great center of Arab learning.

Starting in 1968, when Baath party rule began, the fate of higher education instruction became a mixed bag. While many institutions had surprisingly strong offerings, by regional standards, they were stifled by isolation, central planning and bureaucracy, and intervention that many related to Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule and by the regime’s socialist policies.

One of the more dynamic programs linking Iraqi institutions with those in the U.S. schools has been the University Linkages Program, a $10 million project funded by the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Since 2010 the program has paired seven U.S. higher education institutions with seven Iraqi institutions: Basrah University with Oklahoma State University; Salahaddin University with the University of Cincinnati; Tikrit University with Ball State University; Kufa University with the University of Kentucky; Baghdad University with Georgia State University; the University of Dohuk with Michigan State University; and the University of Technology with the University of Missouri at Columbia. The program is slated to end by 2014.

To learn more about U.S.-Iraqi Partnerships, read “Reawakening Higher Education in Iraq” (588kb Icon PDF 16)by David Tobenkin, which appeared in the November/December 2013 issue of International Educator.