The Collapse of Iraqi Higher Education

College students flee a system under siege
James Palmer, Chronicle Foreign Service
Thursday, January 18, 2007

(01-18) 04:00 PST Baghdad — Even before bombings at a university killed at least 65 students this week, officials said Iraq’s higher education system was on the verge of collapse.

Faced with the lingering war and unrelenting sectarian violence, students by the thousands have been leaving campuses to return home or enroll at universities in other countries. Enrollment fell by more than half at some colleges in the past year alone, education officials said.

Meanwhile, Iraqi professors continue to be targeted for assassination and intimidation. According to Iraq’s Higher Education Ministry, insurgent and militia groups have killed at least 280 academics since 2003, and 3,250 others have fled the country. The violence also has caused as many as 40 percent of Iraq’s professionals to flee the country since the U.S.-led invasion nearly four years ago, according to the Brookings Institution, an independent research group in Washington.

But education officials say they are determined to carry on.

“It would be a big blow against all Iraq if universities closed down now,” Basil Al-Khaleeb, 55, spokesman for the Higher Education Ministry, said before Tuesday’s bombings at the largely Shiite Al-Mustansirya University. “We didn’t stop during the past two wars, and we’re working to continue during this war.”

Iraq’s higher education system was once considered the most advanced in the Middle East. Tuition is free at 20 government-run public universities, such as Baghdad University, and 47 technical institutes. Private colleges charge between $114 and $305 annually. But the system has declined dramatically in the past 20 years.

Twin car bombs near the gates of Al-Mustansirya University on Tuesday killed at least 65 students, mostly women, a university official said. Images of bloodstained notebooks and a burned-out minivan that students had been getting into were shown on satellite TV news stations.

Sais Hussein, 21, a junior majoring in geography at Baghdad University’s School of Arts, said now he is unlikely to finish the school year.

“My mother was crying today because she saw the dead students and imagined I could be one of them,” Hussein said in a telephone interview. “I would like to continue my classes, but my parents decided it’s too dangerous for me to return to school. I don’t know what to do.”

The repercussions of a lack of security stretch across campuses in and around Baghdad.

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