Iraq’s new ‘American-style’ uni

The American University of Sulaimani opens its doors in Iraq amidst continuing violence

In the midst of the protracted conflict in Iraq, the American University of Sulaimani opened its doors this year and ever since has been showered in praise but has also, predictably, been the focus of some controversy. The University was set up by a board of trustees from varying backgrounds, all concerned with establishing a third level institute in Iraq that would educate to a high standard. Their website offers a guide to the type of student that the University expects to enter into its programmes – “passionate, independent-minded” and “only the most qualified” are the key phrases that jump out.

Being a private, independent university, the fees are in the vicinity of $5000 per semester- a huge amount given the current average income of Iraqis, which at the end of 2006 stood at around $2170 per capita, according to UNICEF. But the level of fees reflects the University’s estimates that it will need between $200-$250 million over a period of fifteen years in order to be run effectively, according to the Board’s executive secretary Azzam Alwash.

The American University currently offers degrees in Business Administration, Computer Science, Economics and English, with the number of programmes to be expanded over the coming years. It has been swamped with applications since its opening in January, and struggled to hire new teachers to facilitate its popularity. Information on the level of student life is, however, limited, with the idea that societies and clubs will be established according to students’ interests. However it looks like the students can expect a high standard of facilities, with construction works continuing on five quads, dormitories and additional classrooms.

The University has high aims, which include “to lead the transformation of Iraq into a liberal and democratic society, through an understanding of the ideals of freedom and democracy” and “to promote harmonious interaction among the future leaders of Iraq of different ethnic and religious backgrounds.”

However, the main vision of the University board and the teachers seems to be the promotion of a high level of education and giving young students the opportunity to emerge with a well-recognised degree. This links in with their belief that an “American-style“ university is the best way to reach this high standard.

While many would believe that placing an “American” university in the midst of Iraq is only shining a spotlight on a target for extremist attacks, a huge emphasis has been placed by the Board of Trustees on prioritising safety in the choice of location. The idea behind the American University comes from the founders’ belief that American colleges provide the best platform to “make you an expert in your field” and “open up your mind more broadly’ according to the University’s website.

Interestingly, Deputy Prime Minister of Iraq Barham Sali has been quoted as saying that another aspect to the “American” title is due to Iraq’s gratitude to the US for liberating the country. The school does not make any mention of this in their own explanation, with very little mention of US affiliation. It seems the school would rather focus on education as opposed to creating unnecessary contention.

Naturally, however, there is a level of controversy surrounding the University, particularly regarding its location. Sulimaniyah is located in Kurdistan territory, in the north of Iraq, an area considered to be relatively safe in the current climate. However, many Iraqis argued that the University should have been established in Baghdad, given its cultural and political significance and its position as capital of the country. But the school’s rector, Gordon Anderson, argued that “the reason Kurdistan was chosen is because it’s safe. It would not have been possible to have started the University in Baghdad.”

The establishment of the University comes at at time when the stability of Iraq’s government and economy is being called into question. With a proposal for the gradual withdrawal of US troops from Iraqi soil, many critics have claimed that Iraq is in no position to be left to it’s own devices. This, coupled with ever-present violence in the country presents a strong argument against the plan. However the University and its high aims for it’s students, shows that the future generation of Iraqis are working towards creating a stable and affluent nation.

On opening its doors earlier this year, the University received blessings from Iraq’s most senior political figures including President Jalal Talabani. Indeed both President Talabani and Vice President Adil Abdul-Mahdi are on the University Board of Regents, a fact that has left many speculating on the possible political bias of the University.
Despite these misgivings, it must be reassuring for the people of Iraq to see the opening of a well-funded university in their invasion-ravaged country.