An education system that encourages critical thinking and mines the gold in people’s heads is the hallmark of societies to find a niche in the global economy and reduce reliance on finite raw products such as hydrocarbons.
The Kurdistan Region has invested in transforming the old top-down system, which discouraged open thinking and focused on learning by rote. The number of universities has soared from one to 22 and educational reform is a major work in progress.
Education is also becoming a central part of the growing relationship between the Kurdistan Region and the UK.
At a seminar in Istanbul I saw Iraqi and British vocational teachers comparing notes about how to make colleges better places to learn and work in after decades of isolation from modernity.
Overcoming isolation also underpinned a recent event near Westminster organized by the United Kingdom Trade and Investment body and the KRG UK. It attracted senior executives from many British universities and underlined the rapid growth of interest in the Kurdistan Region.
The KRG UK High representative Bayan Sami Abdul Rahman said that English is widely spoken in the Region with a pent-up demand for English language training.
Such opportunities have finally registered in the UK. The British Higher Education Minister said that that the UK is “trying to respond enthusiastically to Kurdistan’s overwhelming desire to engage with the world to make up for lost time.”
Exporting educational expertise, encouraging overseas students and exploiting English as a World Language is a vital British interest in which it can excel. Four of the top 12 and 32 of the world’s top universities are British. UK Higher Education is worth $22 billion a year. A 10% fall in domestic students because of increased costs coincides with an equivalent increase in overseas students.
The KRG’s Minister for Higher Education said that about two-thirds of postgraduate students on a $100 million a year scholarship program had chosen to study in the UK and would “return as ambassadors.” About 3,000 Iraqi Kurds are already in the UK.
A former Middle East Minister and now a senior leader at Plymouth University, Bill Rammell said that Kurdistan could be a key player in international research. A solid research base would encourage “human capital” with modern research skills and techniques and nurture links with the global research community.
There is a flurry of plans to encourage Kurdistan students to come here and also establish virtual teaching and British facilities in the Region.
There have been teething problems with the standard of English. Some students experience “culture shock” as they discover they have to do more on their own than they are used to. The KRG UK has set up a support system.
Speakers mentioned the need for continuing change in the British visa system whereby many have to first go to Amman and wait for visas before travelling to Britain. The all-party group has often argued that this is losing opportunities for the UK and its Co-Chair Meg Munn MP promised to raise it with ministers to accelerate positive changes that have been made.
Our group has helped change how the Kurdistan Region is perceived but much credit goes to Bayan and her team who have built a formidable reputation over recent years. Foreign diplomats are green with envy about how the KRG UK consistently punches above its weight.
Bayan and I also visited Bury St Edmunds, a small city in rural Suffolk where a little bit of history is being made and attracting media attention.
Geoff Barton, the head teacher of the King Edward VI secondary school for 11-18 year-olds has linked up with two schools in Suly. He and other teachers visited them last year and will take up to six senior students there after Newroz. The local Conservative Member of Parliament backs them.
We were greeted by a choir singing an old English folk song supposedly written by King Henry VIII and then met 100 students who had come voluntarily to learn about Kurdistan. There was a real buzz and students asked incisive questions. The head teacher of a school in Suly spoke live via Skype.
Geoff says that the “visit to Kurdistan made a huge impact, and we are delighted to be developing a powerful partnership with teachers and students there. Our students are eager to learn more and the visit sparked a remarkable level of interest within the school and in the media. It’s great to be involved in something so ground-breaking.”
It will also bring home to ordinary British people that Iraqi Kurdistan is safe to visit rather than an isolated and dangerous backwater. My hope is that tourists start to notice this too.
It may soon not be newsworthy that British and Kurdish students come and go between our countries. That will be the measure of success in reintegrating Iraqi Kurdistan into the international community. It cannot come too soon.
* Gary Kent is the Administrator of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG). He writes this column for Rudaw in a personal capacity.