It has been a decade since I ended my first sojourn in Iraqi Kurdistan. In between a post-doctorate fellowship in Washington, DC, and the start of my broader career, I went to teach English and history classes at the three universities which then existed in Iraqi Kurdistan. The universities were dynamic places. Students clearly were excited to learn, and to seize opportunities which--with Saddam's tanks just several dozen kilometers away (and even closer in Duhok)--they did not take for granted. At the same time, too many university administrators were still operating on an East Bloc model or treating the universities as their own private fiefs.
The aftermath of the 1994-1997 Kurdish civil war was ever-present. At the suggestion of Barham Salih who at the time was the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) representative in Washington, I split my time evenly between territory controlled by the PUK and that of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), so that neither side would accuse me of favoring the other. Because my residence in Sulaymani was slightly longer than my time in Duhok, I would travel regularly to Erbil from Sulaymani to teach at Salahuddin University. At both Sulaymani and Salahuddin Universities, several of my students were refugees from the opposite city expelled because they or their families belonged to the wrong political party; they were unable to take the two-hour shared taxi ride upon which I would depend. Myriad checkpoints ensured that Kurds did not travel freely within Iraqi Kurdistan. When trying to depart KDP territory, it was not uncommon for police to take me from the taxi and demand that I go first to the intelligence bureau to confirm permission to travel.
The civil war and the resultant political Balkanization of Kurdistan impacted university development. Sulaymani University became the showcase for PUK-controlled areas, and Salahuddin became the main university for the KDP. When Asmat Khalid opened a university in Duhok, it was matched by a university in Kuya. Others have since followed. Both sides sought to claim equality in high education. While politicians could brag about the proliferation of universities, they neglected an important reality: Too many universities are not a good for Iraqi Kurdistan.
If Iraqi Kurdistan will truly thrive, it is important that Kurds can not only travel between its cities as many more now do, but that they also establish lifelong friendships with classmates from other towns and from every corner of the region. If students from Duhok matriculate at Duhok University, but never spend any significant time at Sulaymani aside from a conference here or a field trip there, they are doing themselves and Iraqi Kurdistan a disservice.
There is an inverse proportion between the number of universities and their quality of education. Every university, whether in Kurdistan or in the United States or anywhere else has some professors who are truly wonderful educators and experts in their field, and others who care more about prestige than they do about their students. The proliferation of universities dilutes the concentration of great faculty and the quality of colleges within the university.
Rather than have a handful of teaching colleges, law schools, English and Arabic departments, veterinary schools, and agriculture colleges, it might be time to consolidate: Unify the universities into a single university, merge the colleges and departments, and transform the existing public universities into campuses of a single entity. The single English department might be located in one city; agriculture in another, medicine in a third, and computer science in a fourth. Every town and city which now has a university would retain the benefits of the institution, and the employment it provides. Pooling together the best faculty in any particular field would save money by stopping the unnecessary proliferation of administration, bureaucracy, and the unwarranted duplication of laboratories and library collections. The faculties would have greater intellectual depth, the library collections larger, and Kurdish students could begin to compete with those outside Iraq and the broader Middle East.
The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) remains large and bloated. Too often, government offices exist not to serve the people, but to give political allies jobs and patronage. There are more ministries in Kurdistan than in the United States, and the ministers in Kurdistan receive higher salaries than their American or European counterparts. More than seven years after Saddam's fall, it is time that the KRG began to focus on quality rather than quantity. Higher education would be a good place to start. Unlike most areas of the political realm, all Kurds might benefit, and the dividends to the entire region both socially and economically could be immense.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI.