MOSUL—As the end of their academic year approaches, Iraqi students are anxious about the high-stakes exams they will take online this month and their post-graduation future in the midst of a dismal economy.
Laith Hameed’s biggest worry in the exams is a technical glitch—a power cut or page freeze could mean he fails his degree.
Hameed, a 25-year-old student at the University of Baghdad, was among the thousands of students across Iraq who cut classes last fall to join the anti-government protests that began in October. (See a related article, “Iraqi Government Pressures Protesting Students to Return to the Classroom.”)
Since then, he has been studying seven hours a day to make up for lost time. But now, he fears his efforts are in vain after the coronavirus lockdown caused further interruptions to his English language studies.
“These exams are crucial to me,” he says. “I am aiming to get high grades to qualify for a master’s degree after graduation.”
Students at a Disadvantage
The coronavirus crisis has forced Iraq’s higher education ministry to choose remote learning—long scorned in many Arab countries—as the only solution to complete the academic year. (See a related article, “Will the Coronavirus Pandemic Help Reform Arab Higher Education?”)
But there are concerns the new process puts students at a major disadvantage.
More than 400,000 Iraqi students will take their finals online for the first time this month, and the difficulty of the questions isn’t their primary concern.
New ministry rules released this month state that “if there is a page freeze or an Internet cut, the student mustn’t try reload the page, or they will be prevented from completing the exam.’’
With frequent power outages, poor Internet access and patchy connections in many parts of Iraq, this is a serious concern for students as exams approach.
Huda Abdulameer, a senior-year medical student at the University of Kufa, believes the ministry’s solutions are unjust. “Not all the students have the same circumstances,” the 22-year-old says.
“The ministry should provide a real solution to overcome this phase. … All the responsibility is thrown onto the student’s shoulder. In other words, they are forcing us to take exams they never prepared us to do.”
“The ministry should provide a real solution to overcome this phase. … All the responsibility is thrown onto the student’s shoulder. In other words, they are forcing us to take exams they never prepared us to do.”Huda Abdulameer
a senior-year medical student at the University of Kufa
Increasing Economic Strain
Iraq’s students have been studying remotely since the country imposed a strict lockdown in March. The experience has exposed a widening gap between students’ social and financial situations, as family incomes come under increased pressure during the coronavirus crisis.
In a recent interview with Al-Sumaria TV, Adel Al-Rikaby, Iraqi’s Minister of Labor and Social Affairs, said that “since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, the rate of people living below the poverty line has jumped from 22 percent to 34 percent.”
The worsening economic situation has increased the strain on young people struggling to finance their studies. A lot of families are unable to afford smartphones or laptop computers, leaving students scrambling for access to a device they can use to take their exams.
“I have worked six hours a day in a local market since the beginning of the lockdown to help my family; now with only a month left before finals, I decided to dedicate my full time to study,” says Farooq Mohammed, who studies the English language at the University of Mosul.
But looking at the new rules for online exams, the 23-year-old says he fears he will fail. “Last week I downloaded most of the lectures which I hadn’t had the opportunity to attend on my low-storage phone. And honestly, I don’t know how I will take the exams.
“Before coronavirus we barely used Microsoft Word, and now applications like Google Classroom and Edmodo are on the phones of every university student,” says Mohammed.
On top of that, he says, students have to contend with “one of the worst Internet services in the world,” he says. “For example, if the teacher uploads a video lecture at midnight we have to wait until the next morning to download it due to the poor Internet service. We aren’t prepared for this.”
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Unprepared for Online Learning
Teachers, too, say they are concerned for students struggling to adapt at short notice and with minimal support to online learning, which still lacks official recognition. ““Before the spread of coronavirus, the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research strongly refused both online and distance learning,” says Hasan M. Saleh, a professor of English Literature at the University of Mosul.
Many of his students have contacted him with concerns over the new system, Saleh says. While many are good at using technological devices, they have no previous experience in online learning and “there is no clear vision to avoid these problems,” he says.
But for those with exams to sit this summer, there are few alternatives.
“They have gradually come to the realization that such learning is a must, and they have to adapt themselves to this situation,” Saleh says.
But he worries about this generation of would-be graduates, who have already faced a major interruption to their studies during the protests that gripped Iraqi cities last fall.
“The vast majority of graduates in recent years haven’t done anything with their degrees.”Othman Abdulnasser
a student at the University of Mosul
Now, the feeling of hope and solidarity that filled the streets during the student marches is long gone, as young people face increasingly uncertain futures in a country where, according to the World Bank, youth unemployment was at an estimated 36 percent even before the pandemic hit.
Pessimism Among Young People
“The vast majority of graduates in recent years haven’t done anything with their degrees,” says Othman Abdulnasser, a student at the University of Mosul. “Most likely, I will just buy a car and work as a taxi driver after graduation.”
Saleh attributes the mounting pessimism among young people to the “never-ending problems and worsening circumstances in Iraq.”
In the past, many young graduates looked forward to government jobs, but Iraq’s bloated public sector has run out of the means to generate new roles and there are few private-sector opportunities to make up the shortfall.
“Students feel that they have no job opportunities although there is an urgent need for their specialty,” Saleh says. “As teachers and educators, we make our utmost efforts to instill in students the spirit of optimism and challenge.”