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The education crisis facing Iraqi Kurdistan | The World Weekly

Arman goes to one of the many public primary schools in the Kurdish region of Iraq. He is a bright student, his parents say, but due to overcrowded classes he often feels overlooked and unappreciated. When asked how he felt about the recent teachers’ strike, Arman said he misses his friends and wants to play football. "I love running," he laments. 

Teachers were on strike in Sulaimani and Halabja provinces until earlier this week since January 26, 2016; some still refuse to return to work. It is widely believed that the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) did not allow teachers in Hawler and Duhok provinces to boycott classes and demonstrate against delays in their salary payments.

The Kurdish regions of Iraq have long been seen as an enclave of stability and growing prosperity amidst the chaos and violence engulfing much of Iraq. But the region is currently facing a crisis on multiple fronts. An ongoing budget dispute with Baghdad and a sharp drop in oil prices have battered the economy. However, there is a crisis brewing on another front in Kurdistan.  

The region’s education sector is in dire need of reform. The main objective of education should be to engage in intellectual dialogue, scientific research and creative exploration. But Kurdish students usually spend only four hours a day in school at best.

There are 6,000 schools in the territory governed by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that operate two or three shifts – meaning multiple schools in one building. Overcrowded classrooms do not give children enough opportunity to learn and develop, and they oblige teachers to rely on lecturing and spoon-feeding knowledge.

Pishtiwan Sadiq, the KRG’s education minister, said in 2014 the shortage in school buildings could be overcome by 2020 if the KRG could resolve the budget crisis in 2015. But the economic crises have further intensified ever since, and teachers as well as other civil servants have staged numerous protests asking for their delayed monthly paychecks.

The most prominent issues of education in Kurdistan, according to critics and teachers, are the prevalence of violence and harassment against students and teachers, a reliance on control, corporal punishment, rote memorisation of textbook content, and an unreflective and disengaging curriculum.

Many children only spend four hours per day in school

Additionally, party officials regulate the administration of education directorates in the areas under their control, meaning that political affiliation is decisive if teachers want to transfer from their work places and in cases of promotion to school principal or supervisor. Overall, political affiliations and patronage connections determine much of the decision-making in educational administration.  

Maysa Jihad Alwan, university lecturer and PhD candidate at the University of Essex, says it’s obvious that political parties have influence over the employment and the assignment of administrative posts to certain members in the education sector.

"Such an attitude results in the absence of the honourable competition spirit among the staff members and nurtures grudges and hatred which might affect the education process negatively. Any work environment should be healthy. Members should not feel that their rights were taken by others. Otherwise they will lose the sense of commitment and loyalty to the bodies they are working for." 

This lack of vision and the wrong criteria undermines the true value of the teachers when it comes to providing incentives for development. Moreover, there is still a huge disconnect between universities and the job market in the region. All this while, the unemployment rate in the region is on the rise due to the economic downturn and political uncertainty. 

Universities cannot respond to the needs of society and graduates are not equipped with the skills that would qualify them to positively impact the economy and enter the job market. The poverty rate has risen dramatically.

The shortage of school and university buildings and infrastructure, and scarcity of modern facilities and resources, technological equipment and teaching and learning aids are key problems and challenges for the education system in the KRG.

Moreover, political controversies and the economic downturn in the Kurdistan region have overshadowed the significance of education. This is particularly so since the region has faced concurrent political instability in addition to the recent fall in oil prices. These challenges have pushed the region to the brink of total economic breakdown.

Another issue, which is often neglected, is the prevalent political mindset about the education sector. A lack of political will to invest in education has caused huge setbacks for the sector. Additionally, observers say it is not transparent how much of KRG's budget for 2015 was allocated to the education sector.

The political, social, cultural and economic hegemony of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) since the early 1990s has created an environment where mistrust and partisan beliefs have undermined Kurdish society and its values of hospitality and solidarity. Their media, critical reports say, has negatively added to the overall crisis as partisan media outlets have an upper hand and have left almost no room for tackling education issues in radical ways.  

Following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and especially in recent years, both PUK and KDP have opened numerous media agencies and satellite television stations that mainly promote their political and ideological agenda. According to Kurdish journalist Muhamad Rauf, there are 959 media agencies in the Kurdistan Region. The vast majority of these media and publications are either shadow media or mouthpieces of the political parties and party officials.

This underlines the hegemony of partisan media and politics in Kurdish society and reflects the supremacy of the ruling elite over publication and their constant indoctrination through the mass media, which are easily used to manipulate statistics and disseminate fear-mongering rhetoric.

Soran Omar, a member of the Kurdish Parliament, announced on his official Facebook page that if Masoud Barzani wanted to reform, he should start with his own son who recently launched the Kurdistan24 satellite channel which has, Mr. Omar says, cost $75 million. The money, according to Omar, came from the public treasury. He urges President Barzani to ask his son about the source of the funding for Kurdistan24, which costs $1 million a month to run.

The issues of media and education are crucially linked. For example, despite the fact that in 2015 1.7 million students were in schools, 120,000 of them in first grade, there are only two satellite television channels designed for children. Both of them are arguably party-oriented and sometimes propagate for certain political figures by portraying their images and accomplishments.

Kurdish education directs individuals and society from the perspective of party politics and ideology rather than nurturing and bringing up children based on human values and esteem for community life. The educational process also takes place amid a media hysteria and political chaos that various parties are continuously creating in order to cling on to power.

Party politics, patriotism, nationalistic sentiments, patronage relations, and individual interests have thus overshadowed and paralysed Kurdish education.

A “radical” approach to solving the education crisis

The political, social and economic issues in Kurdistan Region are the result and manifestation of a provincial mindset in education, says Abdurrahman Wahab, a PhD candidate in social justice education and policy at the University of Toronto, Canada. He says that thinking of human affairs as issues having not only local but also global implications can serve as the solution for the Kurdish entanglement with the issue of provincialism.

"A provincial mind thinks very narrowly of what it means to be human. In a sense, a provincial mind is incapable of being moral, because it cannot see happiness beyond the boundaries of the material self. It, therefore, tries to imagine all its connections from the lens of the self and weighs everything based on the advancement of the self. Such a self, therefore, easily sees the existence of everyone and everything around it as either assets for self-advancement or obstacles in front of it,” Mr. Wahab tells The World Weekly. “This hostile, self-centered thinking is further advanced through the complexities of the modern education systems."

According to Dr. Wahab, the roots of the problem with Kurdish education are also linked with nationalism and dichotomous thinking:

"A major tenet of nationalism is the preservation of the self, in the form of the imagined cultural identity created within the bounds of the nation-state. Also embedded in nationalism is the dichotomy of the ‘self’ with the ‘other’. While the nationalistic self-identification is not inevitable, it has been, nonetheless, a very strong, if not the strongest, political and cultural force in defining the modern polity.”

Mr. Wahab says that when education works on standardised forms of culture and experiences and indoctrinates people in the habits of a narrow mind, people become disabled in recognising the richness of the human experience. "They end up entrapped in ideological games of flag-raising patriotism that could eventually lead to genocide.

The KRG has taken in hundreds of thousands of displaced people. Here, displaced students are seen at Hamdaniya University

For Mr. Wahab, the solution to the issues of education in Kurdistan Region - as well as the various political and social tensions in the Middle East - lies in the cultivation and promotion of  “radical love for the self” as an aim and objective of education.

The vicious cycle of nationalism in the Middle East can only be broken with radical love for the self in conjunction with the other. This radical love is not a romantic love, but rather a moral political stance in front of the injustices that result from the dichotomous rationalisation in nationalism. A provincial mind is incapable of such radical love, because such minds do not know beyond the self.

Highlighting the importance of education in all this, he says: “Provincial minds are the result of a disengaged form of education that does not communicate with cultures and does not respect the diversity of human experiences."

In order for the Kurdish education system not to remain as a mere defunct state obligation or a rhetorical activity, there has to be a will for radical reform. Education has to respond to the demands of the present society and the constructive aspects of the changing world of today. The explosive force of the Internet, new media and technologies has created great opportunities for education, while there are also dangers and challenges that need to be examined as well.  

The current process of Kurdish education needs to take an organic path as the most effective means of bringing about responsible and engaged humans who believe in the values of cultural diversity and the necessity of coexistence. 

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