When Education Profits, Quality Suffers: A Thought Piece On Education In Iraq

I heard this line in an online meeting last year. While it seems like a cliché, I keep wondering what does it mean to me? To most people?

For me, it means an education system that benefits the ones who run it: teachers, administrators, and board members. The goal of such a system is to make money for those people at the expense of students.

The phrase conjures up images of poorly run charter schools and for-profit universities—institutions that are more concerned with making money than they are with producing good, qualified individuals. And while these institutions certainly exist and are largely responsible for the decline in education quality, there’s more to the story than that.

Maybe the issue is not one of quality, but rather of quantity. There are simply too many universities in Iraq today, and these institutions are all competing for the same pool of students. According to the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research, there are currently 35 public universities and 75 accredited private universities operating in Iraq. These institutions are spread across all 18 governorates and graduate over 180,000 every year[1], and it has been steadily increasing in recent years. The trend shows no sign of slowing down.

The World Bank reports that overall access among the college-age population is only about 19%. This is low in comparison with other countries in the SWANA region. For example, 32% in Tunisia, 34% in Jordan, and 39% in Morocco. Despite its lower participation level, over a quarter of tertiary education graduates in Iraq are unemployed or inactive[2].

The future of Iraq depends on an educated population. With a bloated public sector, excessive dependence on oil revenues, and high unemployment rates, Iraq needs citizens who are well-educated to create a more robust private sector and diversify its economy. However, the country’s current educational system is not adequately preparing students for the workforce and economic contributions.

In his latest statement, the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Naim Al-Abbodi calls for the establishment of new universities, expecting that there will be one million undergraduate students by 2030[3]. However, this only highlights the larger problem of how Iraq can create an educational system that effectively prepares students for the workforce.

The establishment of new universities, especially private institutions, may lead to the creation of substandard institutions that provide poor education while charging exorbitant prices for degrees. This is the case for many private universities that use profit as a measure of success, negatively impacting the overall education system. When institutions are held accountable only for their ability to turn a profit, they may cut corners and focus on short-term gains over long-term results. This puts pressure on lecturers and administrators to prioritize test scores and enrollment over supporting students’ growth and innovations.

The Economics

If we think about the quality of recent graduates, and what it takes them to find a job and support themselves once they leave, we can see how this system is failing students. Maybe the best way to understand why the current university system is not working for students is to look at it through the lens of economics.

In a market economy, the goal is to produce goods and services that people want. If you can’t do that, then no amount of money will be able to buy your way to success. This system only works if there are people who want what you’re selling.

The problem with the current university system (public and private) is that it’s not producing students who are actually qualified for the jobs they want. By teaching students to think like employees instead of self-reliant individuals, and by not inculcating critical thinking skills in them, universities are training graduates for jobs that no longer exist.

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That’s not to say that the system is completely broken. There are some private institutions out there that are producing students who understand how to think critically, work well in teams, and contribute to a modern economy. But these institutions are few and far between, and they’re often more expensive than an average private university.

The Solution

An education system that meets the needs of a rapidly changing world is crucial. But this will be difficult to achieve if the government continues to focus on higher education institutions as mere providers of degrees — and not as engines of innovation and change. Today’s job market will not be able to absorb an army of unskilled graduates, and until the system is reformed no one should expect anything different.

The solution lies in aligning the graduates with the job market — not just with the current job market, but also with the future of jobs. This is where the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research needs to step in and take on a larger role in shaping education.

The Ministry should encourage universities to focus on the development of employable skills, rather than just academic knowledge. It needs to invest more in how universities shape their visions and curriculums, and what skills students should be learning. It also needs to look at why private universities are charging so much for their degrees — and whether the price is justified by the value of the education provided. And why not accredited online education and create more flexible pathways so that students can study at home and work while they learn?

The government should also consider an appropriate education budget that would help it plan and implement improvements. Iraq is spending less than 5% of its national budget on education[4]. It needs to invest more in research and development so that universities can develop new technologies, products, and services — instead of just relying on foreign donors for support.

For a long time, the Ministry has been playing a key role in shaping how universities are run, but it hasn’t been very successful at modernising the system. The new minister needs to push forward a vision for higher education that is aligned with the changing demands of employers and students alike.

Iraq’s higher education system needs a complete overhaul. It needs new policies, better funding, and more international partnerships to help it become more relevant and responsive to the needs of students, employers, and society as a whole.

[1] IMN: https://magazine.imn.iq/%D8%B3%D9%8A%D8%A7%D8%B3%D9%8A%D8%A9/180-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%81-%D8%AE%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%AC-%D8%B3%D9%86%D9%88%D9%8A%D8%A7-%D9%8A%D9%86%D8%B6%D9%85-%D8%A7%D8%BA%D9%84%D8%A8%D9%87%D9%85-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%89-%D9%82%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%A6%D9%85-%D8%A7/

[2] World Bank: https://www.worldbank.org/en/news/press-release/2022/02/24/supporting-tertiary-education-in-iraq-through-stronger-connections-to-the-labor-market

[3] INA: https://www.ina.iq/174331–2030.html

[4] World Bank: https://data.albankaldawli.org/indicator/SE.XPD.TOTL.GD.ZS

Abdulla Thaier

Freelance Writer

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