Aiming to restore the once renowned prestige of its devastated education system, Iraq plans to send up to 50,000 students abroad for advanced studies over the next five years, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told a group of educators gathered Saturday in Washington.
The scholarship program is set to launch this fall with the arrival of about 500 students in the United States and Britain for English-language training. Later, students will also study at universities in Canada, Japan, France, and Australia.
"We are celebrating the desire of the Iraqis to continue to seek their education," said Mr. Maliki, who is on a visit to the United States. "Our universities were known for being the most advanced universities in the world, but because of ... all that we have gone through ... we have lost what we had before."
Zuhair Humadi, special assistant to the prime minister for educational matters,called the initiative "a bold program that will lift Iraq forward" because education "is the key to development."
Softer side of US-Iraqi relations
In a phone interview, Mr. Humadi also said that the initiative is indicative of a new phase in US-Iraqi relations.
"Instead of armies and war and killing and occupation," he said, "we're moving to something more meaningful, namely economic development, education, and exchanges of students and professors."
The scholarship program "will open up Iraq, which has been isolated for 50 years, and really let it get back to a normal situation," he added.
Maliki formally announced the scholarship program Saturday before an audience of about 200 at the Washington offices of the Academy for Educational Development, a nonprofit devoted to global social change, particularly through improving education.
The Academy has a contract with the Iraqi government to be the "implementing partner" for the scholarship program, providing it with administrative support and advice, according to Academy senior vice president for communications, Mary Maguire.
Most of the guests were representatives of 22 US universities that are founding members of the American Universities Iraq Consortium – a group that has agreed to help streamline the admissions process for Iraqi students and ease their transition to US campuses, Humadi said. Other US universities are welcome to join the consortium, he added.
Iraqi students may use their scholarship at any US university and are not limited to those in the consortium, Humadi said. Maliki also signed Saturday a memorandum of understanding with Ohio educational officials that offers Iraqi students in-state tuition.
An education system decimated
Baghdad is launching this Iraq Education Initiative as part of an effort to rebuild its entire education system, once one of the best in the Arab world and noted particularly for its engineering and medical schools. But since 1990 the country's education system has deteriorated drastically because of economic sanctions and war-related violence set off by the 2003 US occupation. Universities have been decimated by assassinations and the flight of hundreds of professors.
At Saturday's ceremony, Humadi praised Maliki for his early embrace of the scholarship plan soon after Humadi proposed it a year ago. The Iraqi leader's response, Humadi said, was "I want to see Iraqi students in the airplane [going] to study abroad."
The program will be administered by Iraq's Higher Committee for Education Development, which Humadi runs out of Maliki's office. As a result, it will be relatively free from the snares of Iraq's state bureaucracy.
Equal opportunity for Sunnis, Shiites
Students will apply online at the program's website (www.hcediraq.org), where criteria for obtaining a scholarship will also be posted, Humadi said.
"We'll adhere to" those criteria, he said, stressing that the program "is going to be very transparent. No wastas with high government officials."
Wasta is Arabic for a connection who can do favors because of his influence or position.
Also, scholarships will be allocated according to a formula based on the population of each of Iraq's 18 provinces "so no one can say you are sending more Shias than Sunnis," Humadi said. And there will be "no discrimination whatsoever" between female and male applicants, he added.
Initially, most students are likely to be working towards a masters degree, but scholarships will also go to undergraduates and those pursuing PhDs. Students will be encouraged to study engineering, education, information technology, business, law, and medicine.
Students expected to return to Iraq
They also will be expected to return to Iraq and work there for as long as they studied overseas on scholarship. For this reason, the Iraqi government will seek to have students coming to the US hold J-1 visas, which allow less flexibility than other types of visas when it comes to extending a stay in this country.
Humadi estimated the eventual cost of the program would be $50,000 per student. So far, Iraq's parliament has appropriated $54 million to cover the 500-student pilot program for the next school year.
Humadi said Iraq has also appropriated $2.5 million to match the same amount from the US government in order to fund Fulbright scholarships for 70 to 80 Iraqis in the coming school year.
Harriet Mayor Fulbright, widow of US Senator William Fulbright, creator of the prestigious scholarship program, attended Saturday's ceremony at the Academy. She serves on the Academy's board of directors.