Iraqi Scholarship Program Gets Started

July 7, 2009

In 2008, Iraqi government officials announced ambitious plans to award 10,000 scholarships per year, for five years, for study at universities in the United States and Britain. “However,” said Zuhair A.G. Humadi, executive director of Iraq's Higher Committee on Educational Development, “we thought before we embark on something that large, let us have a pilot project for this year, to establish the foundation for managing this project.” Iraqi officials hope to award a pilot round of 500 to 700 scholarships in the coming months, so students can begin their overseas studies – starting with placement in intensive English programs – as early as this fall. The full scholarships will be awarded at the associate, bachelor and graduate degree levels.

The scholarship program enjoys government support at the highest levels. Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, restated his support for the scholarship program earlier this month, said Humadi. “He gave me his direct phone number, which is really a tremendous amount of support. He said, ‘I want to see the students taking an airplane, and going.' ”

And, in two years, four, or (in the case of Ph.D. students) more, returning. Said Humadi: “Iraq needs a lot of students majoring in public administration, business administration, all kinds of engineering, computer science, education” – the list goes on.

The Parliament appropriated $54 million for the first phase of the scholarship program, said Humadi, who explained that scholarships will be awarded nationally, proportional to the population of each of the provinces. The Washington-based Academy for Educational Development has been helping the Iraqi government organize systems for managing the program and making awards: “They have really wonderful goals and ambitions for this program and intend for it to be completely transparent. Our initial role is to help them get a system in place for a fair and transparent selection system,” said Sandra MacDonald, vice president for AED and director of its Center for Academic Partnerships.

“Even though it’s getting off to an extremely late start, they are going to go all out and we will go all out with them to get a group of 500 students together to travel as soon as possible,” said MacDonald. She said they're looking to announce the start of the selection process later this month, in the third or fourth week of July.

“I like the way they’re handling this,” said Scott E. King, director of the Office of International Students and Scholars at the University of Iowa, a member of a consortium of U.S. colleges supporting Iraq's scholarship program. “There seems to be more of an emphasis on doing it right than doing it fast.”

The founding members of the American Universities Iraq Consortium are the 22 colleges in the United States, including Iowa, that sent representatives to Baghdad in January. The consortium is open to all accredited U.S. colleges interested in joining, and while students will not be placed exclusively at colleges comprising the consortium, they “are a starting point," MacDonald explained. Students who earn scholarships will then be placed in intensive English programs at U.S. universities, including the consortium colleges, which commit to offering conditional admissions for those students who meet their requirements. After taking intensive English and "bridge" courses, students would begin their degree programs.

"We're just helping start it," said Julie Maddox, director of study abroad programs at Valparaiso University, another consortium member. Valparaiso's intensive English program has rolling admissions and five start dates per year. “We’ve told the initiative that at any point they can send students, we’re willing to drop them into our programs," said Maddox, who traveled to Baghdad in January.

'It's clear that all the participants who ended up going saw that this wasn't just a recruiting trip. It was so much more. It's really at the core of why we're motivated in our field. The exchange of international students promotes mutual understanding around the world, which leads to more peaceful relationships regionally. It's just a way that we felt we could give back to Iraq. It's a part of the world that Americans, for the most part, don't understand, so we're looking forward to having these students educate us, in return."

Critics of the government's plans, however, have raised serious concerns that the scholarships will lead to brain drain in a country that's suffered plenty of that already. Directors of the scholarship program are sensitive to that concern, and mechanisms are in place to compel students to return home. Humadi said that students have to sign a contract with the Iraqi government committing to one year of work in Iraq for each year of scholarship support; they agree to repay their scholarship if they do not return. As an added incentive, students who return can earn further scholarships: If a student completed a two-year master’s degree abroad, for instance, and subsequently spent two years working in Iraq, that student would be guaranteed a second scholarship toward a Ph.D., Humadi said. (Theoretically, then, students could be bouncing back and forth between Iraq and the U.S.)

The Iraqi government is also asking that students be granted a J-1 (exchange visitor) visa, instead of an F, with the idea that the J visa makes it harder for them to stay. (On the larger question of visas, Humadi said he has assurances from officials in the U.S. Departments of State and Homeland Security that they will streamline the process. Others will believe it when they see it.)

“Really, the most important thing is as the security situation, the economic situation in Iraq, improves in the coming years, I am sure most of those students will be heading back, because the opportunities here are tremendous," said Humadi. Indeed, the Higher Committee for Educational Development that Humadi leads has dual charges, to administer the scholarship program and, the second charge more daunting than the first -- to reform Iraq's own educational system from primary through tertiary education.

Even so, Qais Al-Awqati, a professor of medicine at Columbia University, said the money for the scholarships could be much better spent building up institutions in Iraq. Al-Awqati was one of many speakers who criticized the scholarship initiative during a conference of Iraqi-American academics held at the National Academies in March.“This is a foolish idea,” Al-Awqati said in an interview. “The real problem with the universities in Iraq is that there’s been a big depletion of the faculty because of the security situation.” And yet, he said, “Their idea of doing good is to give the money to American universities.”

“We’re talking millions of dollars here. First of all, they don’t have this money. Second of all, this money should be spent rebuilding the faculty,” said Al-Awqati

Yes, students are signing a contract that they’ll return, Al-Awqati said, but requiring them to return is a very different thing from building up university systems they’d like to return to. "Either the country of origin has enough positions that allow this person to practice what he has learned – which is the reason they sent him here. Unless that’s possible, he’s going to stay here."

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