Private higher education in Iraq is expensive, quality questionable

Iraqi students attend their graduation ceremony

“My low score on the exam did not al­low me to enlist in public higher education so I had to settle for a private univer­sity,” said Ahmad Aziz, a 22-year-old communications student at Baghdad’s Al-Farahidi University College.
“With a 56% score, I was happy to join the Faculty of Information. Tuition fees in private establish­ments are quite expensive. In some faculties of human sciences, these can go up to $3,000 annually,” Aziz said.
The option Aziz had to continue his higher education is one taken by thousands of Iraqi students who fail to qualify for enrolment in state universities.
Asma, who studies computer en­gineering, lost a whole academic year after joining a private college that was not accredited by the Min­istry of Higher Education and Sci­entific Research.
“It was a big shock for me. Af­ter completing my first year and spending millions of dinars [1 mil­lion Iraqi dinars equals about $840] at al Nousour College, I found out that the college wasn’t licensed and its degree is worthless on the market,” said Asma, who asked to be identified by her first name. She has moved to another private insti­tution.
Despite conflict and political instability, the number of private higher learning facilities has soared in Iraq since 2003. Private universi­ties give Iraqi students who score lower on a secondary-school exit exam a chance to enter fields such as medicine and engineering, from which they would otherwise be blocked.
Parliament’s Education Commit­tee expressed alarm at the increase in private colleges, which it blamed for the decline of academic stand­ards of university graduates.
“The level in education at private colleges is very weak. Some schools do not meet the basic education standards recognised regionally and internationally. Their aim is to make money at the expense of quality,” said Education Commit­tee MP Abeer Husseini.
“Some private colleges have ac­cepted students in medicine and pharmacy with a score of 60%, whereas in state universities they cannot enroll in such majors if they have less than 95%.”
Husseini said the Ministry of Education decided graduates from unaccredited universities should undergo proficiency tests. “The exams are prepared and corrected by teachers from state universities. These would allow the students to equate their diplomas and years spent at the (unlicensed) college,” she said.
In 2016, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Lib­ya, Sudan and Somalia were re­moved from the World Economic Forum (WEF) global education quality index because their schools didn’t meet basic education stand­ards. After 2003, many interna­tional and foreign universities stopped recognising Iraqi universi­ty degrees because their standards couldn’t be verified.
Iraq has 52 private universities and 35 state colleges, including 15 unaccredited private institutions, the Ministry of Education said.
Education Ministry spokesman Haider al-Aboudi said private edu­cation in Iraq started in the 1980s but there were very few private es­tablishments at the time.
“The conditions for establishing a university include meeting finan­cial, human resources and scien­tific requirements but the problem today is that some colleges without accreditation continue to admit students. Also, some private uni­versities accept high school gradu­ates from literature programmes in their science departments,” Aboudi stated.
Jassim al-Fares, an economics professor at the University of Mo­sul, blamed the chaos plaguing the private education sector on power­ful political parties and religious leaders who have established col­leges to increase their popularity and visibility.
“They have exploited the situ­ation to create establishments which do not possess the minimum educational requirements and aca­demic standards amid government neglect and absence of state con­trol,” Fares said.
“Private education is a wide­spread trend in many countries in the world but it abides by the rules of law and the rules of investment in higher learning,” he said. “In Iraq, the sector suffers many flaws and defects. There is a huge gap be­tween our private universities and private institutions abroad, which meet the high levels of scientific quality and are recognised interna­tionally.”
Private colleges have been hiring retired public education teachers who have no pensions from the government, Fares noted. Private colleges have also made education accessible to those seeking classes closer to their homes, as Iraq con­tinues to face violence and insecu­rity.
The decline in education qual­ity in Iraq started since the 1990s because of wars and sanctions. Be­fore that, the Iraqi education sys­tem was recognised by UNESCO as one of the most developed in the Arab world.
“What Iraq needs is a clear vi­sion and well-defined strategy for upgrading education in the private sector according to the guidelines and conditions adopted interna­tionally by private institutions,” Fares said. Oubai Shahbandar is a former US Department of Defense analyst.

This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.