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Archive for Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Iraqi education plan deserves support

June 4, 2008

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No matter the divide between presidential candidates on Iraq, here's an idea they all can endorse.

It's a wise, very relevant Iraqi proposal that cuts across U.S. debates about stay or leave and beams in on Iraq's future. Moreover, it's doable.

It needs U.S. support, but it won't cost Americans a cent.

The Iraqi government has proposed using oil revenues to send 10,000 high school graduates a year to study abroad - for the next five years. The students would go to the United States, Canada, Britain, and Australia, with the bulk of them headed here. Then they would be required to return home.

This plan is a winner - for both Iraqis and us.

Iraq has been bleeding human capital for the past three decades: in the 1980s from Saddam's Iran-Iraq war, in the 1990s from sanctions, and since 2003 from postwar chaos.

Without skilled manpower, Iraq can't pull itself back together, even if the civil war ends, al-Qaida in Iraq disappears and American troops leave. Oil money can keep the country afloat, but it won't develop into a modern nation without a solid educational base.

Iraq education suffers

Yet the present situation for Iraqi education is desperate. "Iraq used to be the best in the Middle East" in education, recalls Zuhair Humadi, a senior Iraqi official who is working on the education plan (he holds a doctorate from Southern Illinois University). "But in the past 30 years the whole system has been going down."

Iraq once had excellent university programs in science, and produced many women engineers, but its universities are now going through multiple traumas. In the past five years, university buildings and libraries have been degraded by looting, and hundreds of faculty members murdered. Students have been blown up by car bombs and kidnapped by militias.

Under these circumstances the Iraqi middle class has been fleeing, including academics and promising students. Humadi says some reports indicate the number of faculty with doctorates at Iraqi universities has declined to 35 percent.

The Iraqi Education Initiative, announced in parliament on May 11 by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, is a long range program aimed at reversing the hemorrhaging. Al-Maliki will ask the Iraqi parliament to budget $1 billion a year for the foreign scholarships along with a plan to upgrade schools and curriculum inside his country. It may be his most important proposal yet.

"The idea is a simple one," says Humadi. "We need to put more emphasis on education, not only in sending students abroad but also at home. An investment in human resources is the best investment any government can make."

The program would pay all expenses for the students, not just for bachelor's or doctoral degrees but also for two-year technical degrees in such careers as lab assistants or administrators. For high school graduates who have fallen behind because of the violence, the program would provide extra tutoring. "Iraq definitely needs this type of education to rebuild capacity," says Humadi.

Implementation challenges

Of course, the implementation of the program will be as important as the concept. In recent years, Iraqi ministries have become spoils in the battle between sectarian factions and militias. Things got so bad that 150 staff and visitors were kidnapped in 2006 from one of the buildings of the Ministry of Higher Education.

Humadi believes, however, that the scholarship program can surmount sectarian tensions. Candidates for study abroad would be picked from each province according to their grade levels, not by sect. "We can devise methods," he says, "that will not discriminate against anyone."

But this program can't succeed without critical input from the United States.

"The most important thing we require from the U.S. government is to help with the visas," says Humadi. "Iraqi students are still having a very difficult time getting visas, including those with Fulbright grants."

You've probably read about the U.S. visa delays that still block the entry of thousands of Iraqis under death threat for working with U.S. military and civilian officials. The same infuriating delays also block Iraqi students.

According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, of 400 Iraqi graduate students who have already been awarded scholarships to study in America, only 25 have received visas. To make matters worse, Iraqis can't get their visas processed in Baghdad but have to make dangerous trips to neighboring countries such as Jordan or Syria. In a perfect Catch-22, it has become difficult or impossible for young Iraqis to enter those countries, which are overwhelmed by the influx of Iraq refugees.

This is nuts. We've invested billions to "stabilize Iraq" yet we won't facilitate the training of the generation whose education will determine Iraq's future. Those students are crucial to America's future, too.

Middle Eastern youths who study here provide a bridge between their countries and ours; they are more likely to understand American thinking and advocate for warmer relations. President Bush's longtime adviser Karen Hughes rightly called foreign students "the single most important public diplomacy tool of the last 50 years."

Visa roadblocks

In the post-9/11 panic, the number of U.S. visas for foreign students was sharply reduced, especially for Arabs. That trend has reversed. Saudi Arabia sent 10,000 scholarship students to U.S. colleges and universities in 2006-7. Our embassy in Riyadh now fast-tracks their visa process.

Is it possible we would do less for Iraqis? Conceivable that our Baghdad embassy won't fast-track visas so Iraq can train its coming generation?

Even in these crazy times, I can't believe it. Al-Maliki's Iraq Education Initiative is a project that must get Washington's full support.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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