Investment in Iraq's higher education system is essential to accommodate a modern market economy.
Recently, I was recruited to undertake an incredible challenge. I was asked to complete a comprehensive assessment of the business and finance education delivered by Iraq's colleges of management and economics. According to the technical proposal I received, I was to help these business schools with curriculum design and capacity building, provide technical assistance, seek out university partnering opportunities through a grants mechanism, and identify and recruit faculty consultants to assist with upgrading curricula.
But I was astonished to see that the technical proposal included another item among my responsibilities: I also was to introduce Iraq's colleges of management and economics to AACSB accreditation. My first reaction was to ask, "Who wrote this?"
Iraq currently has 32 public and private universities with colleges of management and economics. The oldest university, or the "Mother University" as the Iraqis like to say, is the University of Baghdad. Most American business educators would not believe that any of Iraq's business schools would be ready to even consider international accreditation.
Soon, however, I came to realize that most educators outside of the Middle East are misinformed about higher education in Iraq. Prior to the 1990s, Iraq's universities were among the leaders in higher education in the Middle East. These universities were sought-after destinations for students interested in religion, languages, and philosophical thought, as well as professional fields like engineering, pharmacy and medicine. Iraq itself possesses the world's third-largest proven oil reserves, making it a potentially powerful player in the global economy and placing it in a position to regain a position of prominence.
Since 2003, the United States has contributed significantly to refurbishing Iraq's devastated universities, including $750,000 through USAID for textbooks in business and other subjects related to the practice of finance and accounting. The country's major universities in key urban areas, particularly those in and around Baghdad, have a fairly good infrastructure, including reasonably well-equipped classrooms with computer and Internet capability, although demand certainly exceeds availability.
However, Saddam Hussein's rule and the Iraq War have taken their toll. Iraq in the worst of times experienced assassinations of leading academics and a brain drain, leaving its universities with an insufficient number of academically qualified professors, especially those with educational, research, and teaching experience outside of Iraq. This shortage of qualified teaching staff has been compounded by an enormous demand for higher education. A top priority for Iraqi business schools is to rebuild their universities and teaching staffs and again engage with the global higher education community—and for that, they will need to build strong partnerships with schools in the West.
My Biggest Challenge
My journey to Iraq started in March 2010, when I received a phone call from AECOM International Development, a Virginia-based subsidiary of AECOM Technology Services, headquartered in Los Angeles, California. The company's representative asked if I would consider participating in a project to strengthen Iraq's financial and private banking system. The assignment would be part of a project funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The project's primary goal is to support the development of Iraq's private banks and enhance financial intermediation. This would also include, for me, working directly with Iraq's Ministry of Higher Education and Iraqi universities to help them strengthen their curricula, develop their faculty, and support the country's business growth, private banking sector, and financial education institutions.
Because I knew little about private banking, I initially declined their invitation but due to the company's persistence, I allowed them to submit my qualifications as part of their technical proposal to USAID. I forgot about the project until I received an email in July 2010 congratulating "us" on winning the project and advising me that I was expected in Baghdad in ten days.
While I enjoy international development work and have spent some 30 years involved with the private sector, governments, and higher education institutions throughout Asia and the Middle East, I was looking forward to the upcoming academic year teaching in the School of Business at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. However, since a large part of GW's mission is its commitment to global education, I decided to discuss this opportunity with our new dean, Doug Guthrie. With his encouragement, and that of my department chair, I found myself in Baghdad a few weeks later to take on one of the biggest challenges of my academic career.
Higher Education in Iraq
Once in Baghdad, I was able to recruit a small but very talented team and together we began to educate ourselves about Iraq's universities. Finding information on the structure and system of public and private universities in Iraq was our initial challenge. Even more difficult was the task of having everything translated from Arabic to English.
Data on enrollment, gender distribution, and numbers of students studying in certain disciplines— information routinely available for universities in the West—was lacking or incomplete. Since there has been a proliferation of private universities during the past few years, identifying officially authorized universities and the programs they offer was also a challenge; however, with help from the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research (MOHE) we were able to get a better picture of the Iraqi higher education environment.
Iraq includes the Kurdistan Region in Northern Iraq, as well as Central and Southern Iraq. The Kurdistan Region is semi-autonomous, so it follows a structure of higher education that is separate from, but parallel to, that of the rest of the country. According to recent estimates, Iraq has 59 public and private universities; 342,000 students attend public schools, and 41,000 attend private ones.
Increasing the enrollment of women is a concern among the world's business programs. One of the first things we learned was that women currently comprise a large percentage of students enrolled in Iraq's universities. For example, women make up 30 percent of the enrollment at Al Mansour University College in Baghdad. At Baghdad University, about 49 percent of students are women. Also, just recently, a woman, S. Mansour, was appointed as the dean of the College of Management and Economics at Baghdad's Al Mustansiriya University. Additionally, women hold other administrative appointments in the colleges as directors of programs or department chairs.
I quickly discovered that it would be physically and financially impossible, given our timeline and budget, to do a comprehensive assessment of the quality and availability of finance and business education throughout Iraq. Therefore, with the concurrence of USAID, our small project team was able to tailor our work to focus on undergraduate finance and banking education, which was consistent with the purpose of the Iraq Financial Development Project. I considered that a good first step toward strengthening the emerging private banking system in the country.
From Thought to Action
Shortly after arriving, I was invited to meet with Mosa Aziz Al-Mosawa, the president of the University of Baghdad. The meeting was an eye-opener. I learned just how much Al-Mosawa was interested in learning about professional accreditation for the university's College of Management and Economics. In fact, nearly every president and dean I met immediately understood the importance of accreditation for their schools. They just didn't know what they would need to do to accomplish that goal.
Adib Al-Ajeeli, the former Minister of Higher Education, also invited me to dinner with the key officials of the Ministry to discuss accreditation. The Minister, who had taught in other Middle Eastern countries and was familiar with the Accrediting Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET), wanted to know about equivalent professional accreditation for Iraq's colleges of management and economics. He then asked me to organize an accreditation workshop at the Ministry for close to 40 deans of Iraq's colleges of management and economics—and he wanted it done in three days.
That was the point where my perception of my mission in Iraq changed. Why shouldn't Iraqi schools begin their pursuit of professional accreditation by focusing on the standards of the AACSB? If we were going to help strengthen business and finance education in Iraq essentially from the ground up, why not start with pursuing AACSB membership—and, eventually, accreditation? I contacted Jerry Trapnell, executive vice president and chief accreditation officer at AACSB International, to inquire if the organization would be interested in assisting us. I fully expected to be told that our goal was unrealistic. I was surprised when Trapnell replied that he was prepared to help however he could. Trapnell then prepared a Webinar for use in Iraq, including workshop materials that were translated into Arabic.
We held two workshops on accreditation for the deans, senior faculty, and senior officials of the Ministry of Higher Education. The first workshop introduced participants to institutional accreditation and how it works in the United States. The second introduced them to professional accreditation by discipline and to AACSB specifically. A few months later, we held a second full-day program for the same attendees to explain in detail the requirements for AACSB membership, the grants mechanism our project had established to help Iraqi universities apply and pay for their initial memberships, and the process of accreditation.
Defining the Curriculum
Next, we faced several more monumental tasks which included identifying the country's current core curriculum in finance and banking; outlining how different universities throughout Iraq were teaching these subjects; and, finally, developing and proposing an international standard curriculum.
Of the more than 30 universities in Iraq that offer programs in management and economics, 15 offer programs in finance and banking. Each university in Iraq is permitted some discretion in how it delivers the official curriculum. Some of these universities offer degree programs, while others offer only courses related to finance and banking.
With the help of a local consulting company, we then interviewed deans and faculty, collected course syllabi and other instructional materials, and surveyed ten leading universities throughout Iraq on their programs. Next, we acquired the core curriculum for finance and banking that is mandated by the MOHE. While universities have some latitude in how they deliver their curricula, their faculty cannot deviate from the mandated content by more than 20 percent—when they do, they must submit any proposed changes to the Ministry for review and approval. Such centralization means that curricular changes are incredibly difficult to make.
We then collected instructional materials from faculty members and purchased text materials in local bookstores. We found that teachers often prepare their own instructional materials using foreign textbooks, which they translate into Arabic and then publish and sell to Iraqi students. Because of the process by which these materials are developed, there were inconsistencies among courses designed to cover identical material.
In the meantime, we also needed a partner university to help us translate materials into English and evaluate them against standard international practice. Eventually, following a competitive process, we chose the United Arab Emirates University (UAEU). The UAEU's Faculty of Business and Economics recently earned AACSB accreditation, has an undergraduate program in finance and banking, and has faculty with significant language capabilities in English and Arabic.
The UAEU team not only translated course materials—a time-consuming task in itself—but also helped us develop survey instruments, evaluate instructional materials, and benchmark the Iraqi curriculum against six leading international programs. These programs included The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and the Stern School at New York University; Warwick Business School at the University of Warwick in the United Kingdom; the Australia National University; the American University in Cairo in Egypt; and the Faculty of Business and Economics at the UAEU. We selected these schools because their programs are internationally and regionally recognized, and they each hold AACSB Accreditation.
From this benchmarking process, we were able to develop an international standard curriculum in finance and banking to propose to the Iraqi Ministry of Higher Education. The report offered specific recommendations for the future of business education in Iraq, including AACSB membership, as well as a proposal for the longer-term goal of accreditation. On September 21, 2011, the report, including the proposed international standard curriculum, was presented to the Minister of Higher Education His Excellency Ali Al-Adeeb.
In our report, we emphasize multiple areas where Iraqi business schools must improve. First and foremost, many of the instructional materials these schools rely on are obsolete. They're focused on issues relevant to a centrally planned economy under state financial control—not one that is transitioning to a market economy. Some of these instructional materials go back 35 or 40 years. Schools also need to incorporate new technology into their business and finance courses, so they can better train a new cadre of business academics in contemporary issues of finance and banking practice. Additionally, most professors lack even a technical knowledge of English, which will be essential if Iraqi universities are going to compete internationally.
Our report notes that while the existing curricula in Iraq's colleges of management and economics emphasize finance and banking education, they do not teach the soft skills such as management, leadership, and negotiation that are critical to success in today's global economy. The existing pedagogical style is nearly entirely instructor-centered—our report recommends that schools adopt a more student—centered pedagogical approach. To assist in these efforts, long-term development grants have been awarded to two AACSB-accredited universities: the University of Dubai in the UAE and Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania in the U.S.
Finally, Iraqi business schools must do a better job of reaching out to the Iraqi people and the professional business and finance communities. Many Iraqis do not understand the importance of the private banking sector and its critical role in intermediation and economic development for Iraq.
Implementing change in so many areas will take time. However, Iraqi educators understand that these areas must be improved if they are to move forward. They can do this by partnering with AACSB-accredited universities and by engaging with the AACSB through its workshops and member network. If Iraq's colleges of management and economics are to join the ranks of the leading business programs in the world, it will require a concerted effort on the part of the leadership of the Ministry of Higher Education, AACSB International, and the universities themselves to bring this plan to fruition.
So far, three of the major universities in Iraq, including the University of Baghdad, Al Mansour University College, and Al Mustansiriya University, have been accepted as members of AACSB International. Established in 1956, the University of Baghdad is Iraq's premier public university, with a total enrollment of 58,379 students; its College of Management and Economics enrolls some 9,500 students. Established in 1988, Al Mansour University College is the country's oldest private university, with a total enrollment of 2,737 students and 240 students in business-related studies. Al Mustansiriya University, also a public university, was established in 1968. Its total enrollment stands at 38,247 students, with about 6,923 students in its College of Management and Economics.
A Brighter Future Ahead
"The Future of the Global Muslim Population," a January 2011 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, estimates that Iraq will have a population of 50 million people by 2030. If Iraq is to become a leading economy in the Middle East, it will need a well-educated and competitive workforce.
The deans of Iraq's colleges of management and economics know that they have a huge challenge ahead of them. They also understand that they have to move quickly and effectively to reach a higher standard of excellence. What's particularly important is that other universities in the Middle East are interested in seeing Iraq succeed and, consequently, are cooperating with Iraqi schools in that process.
When I first came to Iraq, I had no idea just how much interest there is in seeing Iraq emerge again as a premier destination for higher education. I also did not realize just how strongly Iraq's universities wish to play a key role in shaping their country's future.
A substantial investment in Iraq's higher education system is essential to accommodate the demands of a modern market economy and to enable young Iraqis to have a productive and rewarding future. As we have seen recently, so much of the unrest in the Middle East lies in a lack of opportunities for the region's young people. A significant investment in higher education generally, and in business education in particular, is critical. Iraq's colleges of management and economics are anxious to develop their programs through membership in the AACSB. The fact that they recognize the importance of professional accreditation in the pursuit of excellence is a step in the right direction.
Herbert J. Davis is professor of strategic management and international affairs at George Washington University's School of Business in Washington, D.C. From September 2010 until October 2011 he served as director of the Higher Education Component of USAID's Iraq Financial Development Project. He is the current senior advisor to the project.