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Last Updated: Wednesday, 23 June, 2004, 00:13 GMT 01:13 UK
Iraqi colleges look for UK inspiration
By Justin Parkinson
BBC News Online education staff

Thamer Ali and Alyasiri Abdul Kadum
Iraqi visitors say they are impressed by UK colleges

Everyone involved in the rebuilding of Iraq knows it will take a long time and a lot of effort.

The country's education system is no exception.

It has suffered decades of under-funding, government interference and being cut off from the outside world.

More recently, sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime have been followed by the effects of bombing and looting.

The Iraqi economy needs properly trained workers, but what is the best way of achieving this?

Academics are looking abroad for inspiration, with delegations visiting seven further education colleges in the UK.

Lack of information

Among them are Thamer Ali and Abdul-Kadum Alyasiri from Baghdad, who are spending three weeks at Brighton and Hove's City College.

During their stay they are looking at teaching methods, the curriculum and college organisation.

Mr Ali, dean of mechanical engineering at Baghdad's Institute of Technology, told BBC News Online: "More than 40 years ago, most high-ranking Iraqis were educated in Britain, but under Saddam that changed.

"There was no information for about 20 years on what was going on in colleges abroad. So the system is still largely based on Britain 40 years ago."

Alyasiri Abdul Kadum
This has been a very rich experience
Alyasiri Abdul Kadum

Last year's bombing campaign caused serious damage to the institute, which has more than 8,000 students.

Following the breakdown of Saddam's regime, looters ransacked its workshops and burned down several buildings. Not that what they had previously was hi-tech.

Mr Ali said: "The trouble with us is our equipment. The Iraqi government gave us bad technology for training. Our work was not seen as a priority."

The link-up between UK and Iraqi colleges is being organised by the British Council and the Association of Colleges.

The AoC's overseas director, Jo Clough, said: "It's about us supporting the rebuilding process and the reconstruction of the education system.

"The visit is to ensure our Iraqi guests evaluate our system and maybe adopt some of its best aspects according to their own needs.

"Iraqi industry is going to grow and the economy will need properly qualified workers."

'Sharing ideas'

Delegates have observed lessons, held meetings with the principal and heads of subject and learned about the intricacies of running a large-scale college.

Many institutions in the UK have strong connections with Middle-East countries like Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Ann Smith, principal of City College, which has almost 9,000 full and part-time students, said "It's never a one-way experience. We are not telling Iraqi colleges how to run themselves, we are sharing ideas.

"It's very important there's a little bit of humility on our side and a realisation that we've had much more freedom here."

Dr Alyasiri, dean of electronics and electrical engineering at Baghdad Technical College, is fully aware of the dictatorial nature of Saddam's rule.

Two of his relations were killed by the regime and another 17 escaped abroad.

Ann Smith
Ann Smith feels humbled by the example of Iraq's college staff

In 1995, Dr Alyasiri tried to cross the border into Jordan to visit his brother but he was caught and imprisoned.

His family had to raise $1,000 before the authorities released him eight months later. At the time, his monthly salary was $10.

Dr Alyasiri said: "Much of the higher education system in Iraq has been damaged.

"We have been working since the end of the war last year to rebuild. There is more money now and the conditions are not as bad as under Saddam.

"We have changed from the dictatorial regime to freedom, but that will cost money and take a lot of hard work.

"My colleagues are looking forward to developing a new curriculum.

"All further education colleges are about vocational training. We have to train our staff to deliver high-quality courses."


One fact Iraqi education has in its favour is that tuition is free.

The Baghdad academics, still hardly flush with money, are looking at buying some portable electronics training kits used in Britain, which cost around 100.

Access to the internet, forbidden to many under Saddam, is allowing better contact between institutions in Iraq and abroad.

But there is nothing like seeing another country's way of doing things first-hand.

Dr Alyasiri said: "This has been a very rich experience. We have been filming much of our visit to take home.

"Under the five years of sanctions we were not allowed to have contact with the outside world.

"The people in Iraq are clever, though, and learned how to do their best with few resources.

"We made stuff for ourselves but of course it was of lower quality. Hopefully we can do better with better equipment."

For now, however, the situation in Iraq remains uncertain, with crime rates high and cities still too dangerous for foreign visitors.

Mr Ali said: "We have security guards at the college and for ourselves when we go to work. There is very little safety.

"Hopefully we can improve the situation here and our colleagues from the UK can eventually visit Iraq."

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