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Burnt, looted or destroyed. That has been the fate of 84 per cent of Iraq's higher education institutions during and since the 2003 war, according to a report released this month by the United Nations University (UNU).

The report calls on the global community to help Iraq set up a National Commission for Higher Education to restore its academic institutions and rebuild its educational capacity.

"The devastation of the Iraqi system of higher education has been overlooked amid other cataclysmic war results, but represents an important consequence of the conflicts, economic sanctions and ongoing turmoil in Iraq," says the report's author Jairam Reddy, director of the UNU International Leadership Institute in Amman, Jordan.

"Repairing Iraq's higher education system is in many ways a prerequisite to the long-term repair of the country as a whole."

Reddy's report, released on 1 May, says that more than 2,000 laboratories in Iraq need equipping. The country's universities and other institutions also need 30,000 computers. Libraries are in urgent need of restocking with new books and journals in both Arabic and English, as well as access to electronic journals.

Among the damaged institutions is the Iraqi Academy of Sciences, set up in 1948. The academy's digital and conventional libraries were both looted during the war.

According to Nabil Al-Tikriti of the University of Mary Washington, Fredericksburg, United States, looters took about 80 per cent of the academy's 58,000 books and all of its manuscripts.

Al-Tikriti says a US tank, which flattened the compound's front gate so that troops could remove an Iraqi flag flying at the entrance, made the looting possible. "Following that cue, looters swarmed over the facility and stripped it of all computers, air conditioners, electrical fixtures, furniture, and vehicles."

McGuire Gibson, an archaeologist at the University of Chicago, United States, told SciDev.Net that when he visited Iraq in May 2003, he saw widespread evidence of looting in Iraq's universities.

"The Technological University and the National Center for Computation were stripped and burned, and the University of Basra was badly damaged, with its library torched." 

"The looting and burning of the Academy of Science and the Bait al-Hikma — the humanities equivalent — meant that the two institutions that brought together the top scholars to carry out advanced research were essentially lost."

Gibson points out that the looting and other damage began, "24 hours after US troops took each city".

Rebuilding tertiary education in Iraq means more than just replacing buildings and equipment — human resources are also needed.

Between 30 and 40 per cent of Iraq's most highly trained educators are thought to have emigrated since 1990, says Reddy. Of the remaining teaching staff, only 28 per cent have a doctorate. The rules require educators to have a master's degree, yet one-third have only a bachelor's degree.

At least 48 academics have been assassinated since the war — some apparently because they cooperated with the United States, others seemingly silenced before they could discuss Saddam Hussein's former weapons research. Many more scientists continue to face threats and intimidation, or have been forced out of their jobs. Several have fled the country.

In the past, Iraqi scientists and engineers were productive and respected members of the global academic community. In the 20 years before the war, Iraq created a new university every 17 months.

Today Iraq has 20 universities and 47 technical institutes. The larger universities like Basra, Baghdad and Mosul have between five and eight specialised research centres. Other research institutions include the Polymer Research Centre, the Date Palm Research Centre and the Marine Research Centre.

But after the 1991 Gulf War and the imposition of sanctions by the UN, research and scientific training fell into decline.

"The teaching overload of academic staff was a serious obstacle to the development of high quality research," says Reddy's report. There was also limited international cooperation in research as Iraq's research centres were isolated from the international academic community.

The final blow came with the 2003 war and the looting and destruction that followed.


Reddy says Iraq needs a commission on higher education similar to that set up in his native South Africa after the end of apartheid to help undertake a full review and transformation of the nation's higher education system. It would include officials, academics, students and selected international academics.


Reddy adds that it is vital that the international community provides funds to allow the "reconstruction and rejuvenation of the Iraqi higher education system to proceed unimpeded."

Gibson says what is needed most is funding for fellowships for Iraqis to study abroad.

"I would urge that this be done not just for doctoral work, but for undergraduate training as well. If it were possible to give funding for doctoral students, it would mean that fresh, up-to-date academics could be returning to Iraq within five years."

"The pool of trained people would be smaller, but their teaching and research would have a great effect on the future of Iraq."  

Al-Tikriti says the US troops were remiss in meeting their obligation under the "international law of belligerent occupation" to "restore and maintain law and order", which includes preventing the looting and burning of public facilities.


For that reason, says Al-Tikriti, "a case can be made that the US government should be held legally responsible for the events, and should be obliged to compensate these facilities for their losses".

Read more about brain drain in SciDev.Net's brain drain dossier.