Kurdish and European university leaders have held the first face-to-face meeting in a three-year project to improve higher education in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Held on November 29 and 30 in the regional capital of Erbil, it brought together participants in the Apprais project, started by the Mediterranean Universities Union (Unimed) early last year.
Unimed, a Rome-based organisation grouping 140 universities from 23 countries, sees Apprais as a model for university reform in other parts of Iraq.
Staff members from eight Kurdish universities (Salahaddin University, University of Sulaimani, University of Duhok, Halabja University, Duhok Polytechnic University, University of Garmian, University of Zakho, and Charmo University) met with colleagues from four universities in Italy, Norway, Spain, and Portugal.
Previous meetings and webinars took place online because of the Covid-19 pandemic and intermittent lockdowns.
“Unimed and representatives of European and Kurdish universities met in Erbil to share and disseminate the first-year work results,” Salah Saeed, president of Charmo University, in Sulaymaniyah in Iraqi Kurdistan, wrote to Al-Fanar Media.
“Due to the staff’s rare international exposure, study visits in the E.U. will represent an added value for their career and will expose them to a different system.”Salah Saeed
President of Charmo University, in Sulaymaniyah, Iraqi Kurdistan
Modernising Institutional Governance
The Apprais project aims at rebuilding and modernising the governance of higher-education institutions in Kurdistan, with a focus on strategic planning, quality assurance, and implementing the Bologna Process.
The Bologna Process is a series of agreements between 49 member countries of the European Higher Education Area (EHEA) to ensure comparability in higher-education standards and promote recognition of credits and learning mobility.
According to Mohammed Hussein Ahmed of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research in Iraqi Kurdistan, the Apprais project is part of a new strategy of radical reform adopted by the ministry in the past seven years to meet the challenges of globalisation.
Ahmed, who is head of Apparatus of Supervision and Quality Assurance at the ministry, described the project as “an opportunity to make academic partnerships with quality universities in Europe.” The aim, he said, was “to convey the academic excellence of European universities to Kurdistan universities, in particular through implementing the Bologna Process, quality assurance and good governance.”
Silvia Marchionne, a project manager at Unimed, believes that bringing good governance practices to Kurdish higher education means enforcing institutional values such as autonomy, accountability, participation, and quality assurance.
“The project will contribute to the modernisation of the Kurdish higher-education system and support higher-education institutions in meeting international standards,” she said. It will also “empower university staff to effectively manage and implement changes.”
Marchionne added that the Apprais project went hand in hand with the Kurdish government’s agenda to reform university governance.
Jawhar Fattah Saeed, a former president of Salahaddin University, in Erbil, said that the project would strengthen the monitoring of universities.
Ridha Hassan Hussein, president of the University of Sulaimani, in Sulaymaniyah, said he hoped Apprais would “improve strategic planning and implement well-structured management systems”.
Future Cooperation with Central Iraq
The Kurdistan region has largely escaped the negative effects of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the ensuing conflict.
Unimed’s consultation with local universities found, however, that they faced difficulties in equalising certificates, transferring professors to European universities, and implementing the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System, or ECTS, the standard means for comparing academic credits in the European Higher Education Area.
“This is why Unimed selected this region for implementing a feasible reform project that, in the near future after the Apprais project ends, can be easily transferred to other Iraqi Kurdish universities or other universities in Baghdad or Basrah,” said Marchionne.
Salah Saeed, of Charmo University, said dozens of meetings had been held in which “we have focused on the needs of quality assurance departments, conducted surveys on decision-making processes in Kurdish universities, and have shared those results with our partners.”
“The project will contribute to the modernisation of the Kurdish higher-education system and support higher-education institutions in meeting international standards,”Silvia Marchionne
A project manager at Unimed
He added that “Charmo University’s department of international relations has also translated the bulk of higher-education legislation and laws from Kurdish into English.”
Marchionne expects 56 university leaders (presidents, vice-presidents, heads of international relations offices, and quality assurance officers) at the eight Kurdish universities to benefit from training in strategic planning, quality assurance, and credits recognition.
The project “will also upskill 80 administrative staff on university administrative management, quality assurance, and internationalisation strategies,” she said. “Further, 160 university staff (20 people from each institution) will benefit from the institutional training of trainers.”
The Bologna Process
Saeed was particularly proud of the part played by Charmo, the region’s smallest and youngest public university, in implementing the Bologna Process.
The Bologna Process was designed in part to establish the European Higher Education Area. For member countries, the main goal of the EHEA is to increase staff and students’ mobility and to facilitate employability.
Charmo University, set up in 2014, is working with the University of Evora in Portugal. “We are conducting surveys on the implementation of the Bologna Process in Kurdistan, addressing the challenges and shortcomings, and identifying the needs for improvement as well,” said Saeed.
Hussein, of the University of Sulaimani, said implementing the Bologna system and ECTS will facilitate credit recognition and equalising of certificates. “This project also enhances chances of participation in more mobility programs with European partners resulting in more student and staff exchanges,” he explained.
Achieving quality education and innovative governance practices can make Kurdish universities more attractive for international students, Saeed said.
European-Kurdish cooperation “will promote reciprocal learning and exchange of good practices,” he added.
“Due to the staff’s rare international exposure, study visits in the E.U. will represent an added value for their career and will expose them to a different system. They need a stronger practical training and to develop soft skills like problem-solving, entrepreneurship attitude, and critical thinking.”
Salahaddin University teaching staff have participated in training workshops and joint research at European universities, Jawhar Saeed said.
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“A number of students were also sent to complete their postgraduate studies in European universities. Erasmus programmes have been useful in this regard, even for undergraduate students.”
The Erasmus programme is a European Union initiative to encourage students to do part of their studies abroad, getting credits which contribute to their degree.