Iraqi employers say English language ability is the top skill they want from graduates as potential employees.
To meet this demand, two universities in Iraq have set up new facilities specifically for the teaching of English. In Basra, Southern Technical University opened its English Language Teaching and Learning Center in December. And in Koysinjaq in Iraqi Kurdistan, Koya University opens its English teaching center this month.
A recent labor market survey by IREX, an American nonprofit organization working in education, asked 400 Iraqi employers in 13 economic sectors to rank the 20 skills they most needed in their workforce, either to solve problems related to their industry or to develop their company. English language ability was ranked first overall, followed by skills in information and computer technology, sales and communications.
In a country where youth unemployment is high, and even higher for educated youth, universities are searching for ways to equip their graduates with the skills they need to get jobs. Evidence shows that English language skills are critical to improving employment prospects for young people in the MENA region.
Iraqi youth can face a bleak future after graduation. Rampant corruption and the government’s failure to address underlying grievances; poor job prospects and a nation-wide economic crisis; and an ongoing war against Da’esh can leave youth feeling marginalized and vulnerable to extremist ideologies.
Yet private sector employers often must send employees out of the country to get high-quality English language training. The new English language centers in Basra and Koysinjaq are a response to this.
The two centers were funded by the U.S. embassy in Iraq, through its U.S.–Iraq Higher Education Partnership Program, and received technical guidance from IREX.
English language courses at Southern Technical University will begin next month, and will focus on the English language skills needed for private sector employment, particularly in the energy sector. Workshops on basic academic writing skills for staff have already started.
“The Center will significantly improve the skills of students, and make more career opportunities available to them,” said Muzafar Sadeq al-Zuhair, president of Southern Technical University.
In preparation for the center’s opening, four STU faculty members took part in intensive training at the Center for English Language Learning at the University of Missouri-Columbia. The faculty members were trained in conducting needs assessments, program standards, curriculum design and best practices for teaching English as a second language.
The U.S. consulate in Basra provided books, and sponsored English language training for an additional three faculty members from STU. The university is also exploring online courses.
Three faculty members from Koya University took a six-week training course at the University of Arkansas to prepare them to develop the curriculum and assessments for their center, to train other teachers and to learn administrative skills. The opening of the English Language Center here will help students acquire the English language skills they need to complete academic coursework, and offer English language training to faculty members.
Not only are students in the region with English-language capability getting hired, but they also are shown to earn more than non-English speakers. The focus on English language ability is a driver of overall economic growth.
Now more than ever, English language skills in Iraq and the MENA region are highly valued by employers, and the success of language centers like these is vital to meeting this demand.