UNESCO reports that prior to the first Gulf War in 1991 Iraq had one of the best educational performances in the region. Primary school Gross Enrollment Rate was 100% and literacy levels were high. Since that time education has suffered as a result of war, sanctions, and instability.
Iraq established its education system in 1921, offering both public and private paths. In the early 1970s, education became public and free at all levels, and mandatory at the primary level. Two ministries manage the education system in Iraq: the Ministry of Education [MOE] and the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research [MOHSR]. The Ministry of Education is in charge of pre-school, primary, secondary, and vocational education, while the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research [MOHSR] is in charge of tertiary education and research centers.
The Golden Years:1970-1984
Iraq’s education system was one of the best in the region during this period of time, and highly praised throughout. By 1984, major accomplishments had been achieved, which include but are not limited to:
• Gross Enrollment Rates rising over 100%
• Almost complete gender parity in enrollment
• Illiteracy among 15-45 age group declined to less than 10%
• Dropout/Repetition rates were the lowest in the Middle East and North Africa [MENA] region
• Spending in Education reached 6% of Gross National Product [GNP] and 20% of Iraq’s total government budget
• The average government spending per student for education was ~$620
The Decline Years: 1984-1989
The 1980s brought about the war with Iran, which in turn led to a diversion of public resources towards military spending. Naturally, this resulted in a steep decline in overall social spending. With this, the education budget suffered from a deficit, which continued to grow as the years passed. There was also no strategic plan in place to address these issues at the time.
The Crisis Years: 1990-2003
Moreover, the 1990s brought about the first Gulf War and economic sanctions, which caused Iraq’s educational institutions to debilitate further. Some of the outcomes of the weakening system included but are not limited to:
• The share of education in the Gross National Product [GNP] dropped to almost half, resting at 3.3% in 2003
• As Gross Income declined, resources for education suffered
• Education came to assume only 8% of the total government budget
• Government Spending per student on education dropped from $620 in the ‘Golden Years’ to $47
• Teacher salaries dropped in real terms, from $500-1000/month to $5/month in 2002-2003
• Gross Enrollment in primary schooling dropped to 90%
• The gender gap increased [95% Male, 80% Female]
• The dropout rate reached 20% [31%Female, 18%Male]
• The repetition rate reached a figure that is double that of the MENA region, 15%, and 34% for secondary schools
It is generally agreed upon that before 1990, the educational system in Iraq was one of the best in the region in addressing both access and equality. However, the situation began to deteriorate rapidly due to several wars and economic sanctions. According to UNESCO’s 2003 Situation Analysis of education in Iraq, the educational system in the Centre/South worsened despite the provision of basics through the Oil for Food Programme. Northern Iraq did not suffer as much due to rehabilitation and reconstruction programs organized through several UN agencies.
Since then, major problems have emerged that are hindering the system, and include: lack of resources, politicization of the educational system, uneven emigration and internal displacement of teachers and students, security threats, and corruption. Illiteracy is widespread in comparison with before, standing at 39% for the rural population. Almost 22% of the adult population in Iraq has never attended school, and a mere 9% have secondary school as highest level completed. As far as gender equity, 47% of women in Iraq are either fully or partly illiterate, as women’s education suffers from differences across regions, and especially between the North and South.
Since the 2003 invasion and the fall of the former dictatorial regime [Saddam Hussein], Iraqis with the help of international agencies and foreign governments, have been attempting to create frameworks that would begin to address the issues at hand.
According to the National Development Strategy of Iraq, published on June 30th, 2005, the new vision for Iraq intends to:
“Transform Iraq into a peaceful, unified federal democracy and a prosperous, market oriented regional economic powerhouse that is fully integrated into the global economy” .
This stems from the fact that the country’s economy has been mismanaged for 40 years, and a country that once held a bright private sector and educated population has come to have one of the lowest human development indicators in the region.
The National Development Strategy [NDS] contains four major areas of concentration:
• Strengthening the foundations of economic growth
• Revitalizing the private sector
• Improving quality of life
• Strengthening good governance and security
The major pillar above that includes the category of education is that of “Improving quality of life”, as ‘healthy citizens tend to be productive citizens that will be able to take advantage of the opportunities provided in a market-oriented economy’ . The exact strategy towards education includes ‘investing in human capital with a focus on adult literacy, vocational training and actions to reduce drop-out rates at the primary level’ .
Following the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority, with substantial international assistance, undertook a complete reform of Iraq’s education system. Among immediate goals were the removal of previously pervasive Baathist ideology from curricula and substantial increases in teacher salaries and training programs, which the Hussein regime neglected in the 1990s. The new Ministry of Education appointed a national curriculum commission to revise curricula in all subject areas. Because of under-funding by the Hussein regime, in 2003 an estimated 80 percent of Iraq’s 15,000 school buildings needed rehabilitation and lacked basic sanitary facilities, and most schools lacked libraries and laboratories.
In the 1990s, school attendance decreased drastically as education funding was cut and economic conditions forced children into the workforce. After the regime change, the system included about 6 million students in kindergarten through twelfth grade and 300,000 teachers and administrators. Education is mandatory only through the sixth grade, after which a national examination determines the possibility of continuing into the upper grades. Although a vocational track is available to those who do not pass the exam, few students elect that option because of its poor quality. Boys and girls generally attend separate schools beginning with seventh grade. In 2005 obstacles to further reform were poor security conditions in many areas, a centralized system that lacked accountability for teachers and administrators, and the isolation in which the system functioned for the previous 30 years. Few private schools exist. (One notable example: The Classical School of the Medes in Northern Iraq.) Prior to the occupation of 2003, some 240,000 persons were enrolled in institutions of higher education. In 2000 the literacy rate was 55 percent for males and 23 percent for females.
The impact of government policies on the class structure and stratification patterns can be imputed from available statistics on education and training as well as employment and wage structures. Owing to the historic emphasis on the expansion of educational facilities, the leaders of the Baath Party and indeed much of Iraq's urban middle class were able to move from rural or urban lower-class origins to middle and even top positions in the state apparatus, the public sector, and the society at large.
This social history is confirmed in the efforts of the government to generalize opportunities for basic education throughout the country. Between 1976 and 1986, the number of primary-school students increased 30 percent; female students increased 45 percent, from 35 to 44 percent of the total. The number of primary-school teachers increased 40 percent over this period. At the secondary level, the number of students increased by 46 percent, and the number of female students increased by 55 percent, from 29 to 36 percent of the total. Baghdad, which had about 29 percent of the population, had 26 percent of the primary students, 27 percent of the female primary students, and 32 percent of the secondary students.
Education was provided by the government through a centrally organized school system. In the early 1980s, the system included a six-year primary (or elementary) level known as the first level. The second level, also of six years, consisted of an intermediate-secondary and an intermediate-preparatory, each of three years. Graduates of these schools could enroll in a vocational school, one of the teacher training schools or institutes, or one of the various colleges, universities, or technical institutes.
The number of students enrolled in primary and secondary schools was highest in the central region and lowest in the north, although the enrollment of the northern schools was only slightly lower than that of the south. Before the war, the government had made considerable gains in lessening the extreme concentration of primary and secondary educational facilities in the main cities, notably Baghdad. Vocational education, which had been notoriously inadequate in Iraq, received considerable official attention in the 1980s. The number of students in technical fields had increased threefold since 1977, to over 120,090 in 1986.
The Baath regime also seemed to have made progress since the late 1960s in reducing regional disparities, although they were far from eliminated and no doubt were more severe than statistics would suggest. Baghdad, for example, was the home of most educational facilities above the secondary level, since it was the site not only of Baghdad University, which in the academic year 1983-84 (the most recent year for which statistics were available in early 1988) had 34,555 students, but also of the Foundation of Technical Institutes with 34,277 students, Mustansiriya University with 11,686 students, and the University of Technology with 7,384 students. The universities in Basra, Mosul, and Irbil, taken together, enrolled 26 percent of all students in higher education in the academic year 1983-84.
The number of students seeking to pursue higher education in the 1980s increased dramatically. Accordingly, in the mid-1980s the government made plans to expand Salah ad Din University in Irbil in the north and to establish Ar Rashid University outside Baghdad. The latter was not yet in existence in early 1988 but both were designed ultimately to accommodate 50,000 students. In addition, at the end of December 1987, the government announced plans to create four more universities: one in Tikrit in the central area, one each at Al Kufah and Al Qadisiyah in the south, and one at Al Anbar in the west. Details of these universities were not known.
With the outbreak of the war, the government faced a difficult dilemma regarding education. Despite the shortage of wartime manpower, the regime was unwilling to tap the pool of available university students, arguing that these young people were Iraq's hope for the future. As of early 1988, therefore, the government routinely exempted students from military service until graduation, a policy it adhered to rigorously.
There is currently an insufficient supply of schools, and most schools suffer from poor conditions.
• Gap of 3590 schools in 2003 result in double or triple shifts in school buildings • About 70% of schools lack clean water and latrines
• Almost 1000 schools are built from mud, straw, or tents
• Poor quality of inputs includes: science labs, libraries, equipment, an outdated curriculum, lack of teacher training, staff absenteeism, and the wide spread phenomenon of private tutoring which takes away from the public system
• Centralized Administration
Conflict and Security
Since 2003 and the fall of the dictatorial regime, the war on terror and sectarian conflict has further destabilized the education system in Iraq.
• 2751 schools were damaged severely and require rehabilitation. 2400 schools experienced looting.
• Schools in dangerous areas were forced to close for extended periods
• Education personnel were targeted, kidnapped, attacked, and or killed
• Teacher absenteeism and that of girls reached a high level, due to the security threat
Since the bombing at Samar’a in 2006, displacement of both teachers and students has been another factor in the destabilization of the system.
• ~320,000 students are displaced [200,000 internally]
• ~65% of the displaced are males. Girls tend to drop out.
• ~20,000 teachers are displaced
• Internal migration patterns vary, which places a burden on the system as it cannot deal with changing demands
• External displacement is located mostly in Jordan (where the students are absorbed into the system, with fees paid by the MOE in Iraq), Syria (where the students continue forward with the Iraqi education system and testing), and Egypt
Since May 2003, international agencies have been involved in supporting education in Iraq, but fragmented data has not allowed these numbers to be integrated into the governmental budget. The UN [~US$80 million] and World Bank have two trust funds that go to help Iraq specifically, while USAID has contracts through the US Supplemental Budget for Iraq. Although these programs are a great beginning, they do not reach the level as assessed by the October 2003 UN/WB Needs Assessment Study, $4.8 billion.
Current Projects financed by the Iraq Trust Fund, include but are not limited to:
• Emergency Textbook Provision Project: [US$40million]. Since May 2004, the project is intended to finance and distribute 69 million textbooks for 6 million students spread across all of the governorates for the 2004/05 year.
• Emergency School Construction Rehabilitation Project: [US$60million]. Since October 2004, the project is meant to construct 55 school buildings and rehabilitate 133 schools. The rehabilitation of 133 schools is complete, at an average cost of US$181 per student, and benefits 45,000 pupils while creating 3,000 construction jobs.
• Emergency School Construction Rehabilitation Project- Supplemental Grant for Marshland Schools: [US$6million]. Since October 2006, the grant provides additional funding for the Emergency School Construction and Rehabilitation Project to construct ~33 new schools in the Marshland areas of Iraq. This would go to benefit between 6,000 and 8,000 children in that region, and create near-term employment opportunities within construction. Local stakeholders are involved (i.e. NGOs).
• Third Emergency Education Project [US$100million]: The funds are from the International Development Agency [IDA], in collaboration with the World Bank. This project is in progress (updated July 2008) and aims to develop a national school construction and maintenance program as well as offer capacity building activities.
• A distance learning via satellite television project is underway with UN agencies to produce programs for displaced persons, total $US5 million [not part of the Iraq Trust Fund]
Despite endless daily challenges, the education system in Iraq continues to function. Actions thus far include but are not limited to :
• 3600 schools rehabilitated
• 120,000 teachers recruited
• Focus on girls’ education
• Curriculum Reform
• Provision of Learning Resources
• Distance learning programs for out of school children (i.e. in Syria)
• Organizational chart reform
• Increasing collaboration with External partners
Ultimately, in accordance with the above information, there appear to be massive challenges to tackle within the Iraqi educational system. The system was obviously one of the best in the region in the 1980s, and with the correct steps can reach those levels once again. The conflict-state of the country however, presents the main challenge to the Iraqi government and international community in its reconstruction efforts. Inherited problems from the past regime, such as a centralized, inefficient management/administrative system, poor school conditions, an insufficient supply of schools, poor quality school inputs, lack of teachers and teacher training must be addressed. Post 2003 war issues such as security and displacement, often common in conflict zones, must also be dealt with. This is not an easy task, nor one that can be accomplished over night, but with the help of the international community and dedication of the Iraqi people, it is possible.