University officials from Iraq and the United States pledged Wednesday to deepen their academic ties, but they said there are significant challenges to increasing opportunities for Iraqi students to study in America and creating dynamic university partnerships.
During a conference here organized by the Iraq Embassy and supported by the U.S. State Department, government officials from both countries emphasized the need to rebuild the Iraqi higher-education system, which historically has been one of the strongest in the region.
After 30 years of war and economic sanctions, and with continued political instability, "the challenges facing Iraq are enormous," said Ali Al-Adeeb, the Iraqi minister of higher education and scientific research. "Higher education is a basis on which we can start to develop" the country.
During the two-day meeting, Iraqi leaders from 11 universities and representatives from over 40 American institutions hashed out plans to work better together. The primary focus: improving Iraq's scholarship programs. In the last few years, thousands of Iraqi students have traveled abroad to earn their master's or doctoral degrees with financing by the Iraqi government agencies. Today, more than 500 Iraqis are studying on American campuses.
But this burgeoning academic relationship between the two countries has been rocky. Iraqi officials said student-visa requirements are overly burdensome and that Americans sometimes don't appreciate the challenges facing students in Iraq, where paying the more than $100 to take a Toefl test can be too expensive for some.
American university officials countered that having three scholarship programs operated separately by the Iraqi higher-education ministry, the prime minister's office, and the Kurdish regional government is troublesome. For example, the programs allow for different lengths of time for doctoral students to complete their degrees and for students to gain proficiency in English.
The various rules governing the scholarships "have caused some confusion, not only among U.S. universities but Iraqi students," said Anne Schneller, who coordinates students on foreign scholarships for Michigan State University. Before the conference, Ms. Schneller did an informal survey of other institutions with Iraqi scholarship students to understand the variety of issues they face. In addition to program rules, she said, Iraqis seem to struggle with the admissions process, like what constitutes a proper letter of recommendation. "We often get letters that say, 'Mr. Ali was in my math class three years ago and was very good.'"
She did note that the Iraqi students who enrolled at Michigan State—it now has 30 on campus—excel academically and mix well with other students on campus. And she was sympathetic to Iraqis who have to navigate the American higher-education system. "I can only imagine how difficult it is to learn each of our separate policies at U.S. universities."
Abdul Hadi Al Khalili, the cultural attaché at the Iraq Embassy, said Iraqi officials are working to fix any problems. For example, the higher-education minister wants to make it easier for Iraqi Ph.D. students to extend their stay.
The State Department is also taking steps to smooth the path for Iraqis into American higher education. For example, it wants to help fix a longstanding problem—the lack of English proficiency among students—by building an English-language institute in Baghdad to train Iraqi scholarship students before they go abroad. It has awarded Ball State University $1-million to turn a former U.S. Army facility into the institute and to send language instructors to Iraq.
But during the conference, Abdul Sahib Najim, an adviser to the ministry of higher education, said the language center, which is to be located in the heavily fortified area formerly known as the Green Zone, is a bad idea because the security will prevent easy access by Iraqis. "We should establish this center outside the Green Zone," he said to applause from participants.
Aside from the scholarship programs, Iraqi university leaders came to the conference seeking aid in modernizing their curricula, teaching methods, and research facilities.
Mosa Al Mosawi, president of the University of Baghdad, said the university is working with 14 American institutions and wants to find more partners. He would like assistance to incorporate the latest teaching technology into his university's classrooms, set up sabbatical opportunities for professors in the United States, and update the medical curriculum.
For their part, American institutions were game, as long as the deals fit well into their educational strengthens.
Donald G. McCloud, dean of Diether H. Haenicke Institute for Global Education at Western Michigan University, said he was interested in finding an Iraqi institution at the conference that dovetailed with his university's 30 Ph.D. offerings.
Said Mr. McCloud about the meeting: "It's a matchmaking effort."