“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.