While countries like Saudi Arabia and UAE are among the primary sending markets in the Middle East, the rebuilding nation of Iraq is a strong secondary market. Foreign aid and a recovering higher education sector that is seeing more students complete secondary and undergrad studies have combined to make the country a growing source of international students.
Iraq study programmes and scholarships
Foreign education became a possibility for local students when the Higher Committee for Education Development in Iraq launched the Iraq Educational Initiative, which was tasked with sending Iraqi students to pursue graduate or undergraduate studies at accredited foreign universities.
The programme began in 2009-2010, and functions in partnership with English speaking countries as well as some that teach in English, to send students to a selection of schools that are accredited with the Ministry of Higher Education and appear on UNESCO’s list of international universities. The first year 612 students were sent, and in 2011, 1,000 scholarships were awarded. The students are mostly seeking PhDs, and are primarily pursuing studies in engineering, agriculture, computer science, and hard sciences.
Right now, there is up to US $200 million in scholarships available for studies abroad. For example, the Human Capacity Development Program in Higher Education (HCDP) provides US $100 million in scholarship support solely for students from Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, and to date more than 4,000 Kurdish graduates have been awarded scholarships to study for masters and PhDs in international universities.
International organisations have appeared on the scene in Iraq as well. Through its Iraq office, the UN has been staging training workshops since 2005, and more recently the World Bank has offered technical assistance. The US has contributed millions of dollars to educational and exchange programmes, and is preparing to launch a US $1 million English as a second language programme in Baghdad. Foreign oil companies are also required to fund Iraqi education and training programmes.
Other scholarship programmes include the MENA Scholarship Program for Middle East and North Africa, (funded by the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs), the Fulbright Scholar Program, the Schlumberger Foundation Faculty for the Future (for PhD or postdoctoral study in the physical sciences, engineering and related disciplines), Erasmus Mundus Lot 8, and Chevening UK Government Scholarships.
The Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research provides some enlightening numbers. According to a Ministry announcement, as of March 2012, a total of 22,000 scholarships had been awarded for masters and doctoral students to study around the world. Among the receiving countries were the US, UK, Canada, Japan, China, Indonesia, France, Germany, Italy, India, Russia, Sweden, Austria and Denmark.
Matters have moved forward in the area of international interchange as well. In September 2012 Iraq held the Second Baghdad Educational Fair at the Al-Rasheed Hotel. The slate of activities included workshops and meetings with officials from HCED and the Ministry of Higher Education, face-to-face discussions with scholarship students about their admission requests, and opportunities to meet officials from the US, British, Australian and Japanese embassies in Baghdad. No dates have been announced yet for the 2013 Fair.
Iraq on the mend
Concurrent with the increases in Iraqi and foreign scholarship capital, efforts to repair the higher education sector have gathered momentum. New Education Minister Ali al-Adeeb is spearheading a three-year higher education reform plan that involves giving financial and administrative independence to universities.
“He intends to create 15 specialised universities that emphasise scientific fields, including medicine, petroleum studies and engineering.”
In addition, a 10-year, first-of-its-kind national education strategy was announced last December to help ensure quality education for the country’s 33 million citizens, especially the most deprived children and youth.
This is significant, because not only did more than 80% of universities sustain damage during and after the 2003 invasion, but the impossibility of holding classes, along with the loss of thousands of professors, brought about a general decline in academic standards and literacy.
Yet today, the sector is fighting to regain its footing and in so doing is producing thousands of students willing and eager to study abroad.
Factors determining study destinations
Students tend to choose where to study based on whether they are self-funded or government-funded.
Students who are self-funded are more price conscious, and therefore look toward countries like Malaysia, Turkey, Cyprus, and India as study destinations. English-medium programmes of study are most desired (only about 5% of Iraqis study in Turkish, for example).
Conversely, students on government scholarships have a broader range of options, and typically choose study destinations in the west, with the top choice being the UK or US.
The UK is also popular due the fact that they have a consulate in the Kurdish capital of Erbil, and therefore, for those on government scholarships, obtaining a visa can be a fairly smooth process.
The United States will open an Erbil consulate this spring or summer, which is expected to bring immediate results in terms of a market shift away from top recipient countries and towards the US.
For historical reasons, the Kurdish region is “Pro-American” (for instance, Americans don’t even need a visa to enter the region). Erbil is booming due to oil revenues, with regular flights and new hotels continually opening. The cultural capital of the region – Sulaymaniyah – has some regular flights and has a regular 3-hour bus service to Erbil, making it fairly easy to combine the two cities on one recruiting trip.
If a student wishes to study in a country that doesn’t maintain a consulate in Iraq (i.e. Canada or Australia) he or she needs to travel to a neighbouring country such as Turkey or Jordan to obtain the visa. This adds time and effort to the entire process of preparing to study abroad. For recruiters, familiarity with the always shifting landscape of scholarships, funding and visas is a must.
Recruiting tips for Iraq
Mr David Anderson, vice president of ELS Language Centers, shared his insights on recruiting in Iraq at last December’s AIRC (American International Recruitment Council) conference. The conference brought together 185 participants from several countries, including a range of associations and government agencies. The conference format included workshops targeted at institutions and agencies, a broad range of sessions on policy, recruitment solutions, and technology, and several participant-led small group discussions.
Anderson warned of various obstacles in Iraq recruiting, including banking transfer difficulties, an absence of locally offered TOEFL iBT, GRE and GMAT programmes, and lingering safety concerns, but pointed out that, as in other Arab regions, the quality of students is high. Other useful tips Anderson offered to recruiters were:
- Find foreign graduate departments that can provide some sort of conditional acceptance pending the student’s completion of language studies.
- Iraqi students don’t possess credit cards, so look for education departments that accept alternative forms of payment.
- Recruiters working with US-based institutions should keep in mind that Iraqi students are generally unfamiliar with the details of American higher education, such as admissions, visas, GRE, and SEVIS compliance.
- Student placement is generally decided by the HCED (Higher Committee for Education Development) office in Baghdad.
- Aim for bilateral agreements with departments within Iraqi universities to guarantee a number of slots.
Mr Mustafa Wshyar Abdullah from local agency Rony offers more useful advice from the perspective of someone who has spent years working and living in Iraq. In his opinion, the most useful tool of all for recruiters is having solid connections with institutions in Iraq, and having a good relationship with government officials.
Iraq may demand more legwork than some of the region’s primary markets, but with the higher education sector retrenching and recovering, generous scholarships available, and students eager to study abroad, the potential rewards there are numerous.