x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Academics from Dubai drive Iraqi colleges to new heights

University of Dubai lends a helping hand to two Iraqi universities in Dh1.8m development scheme.

DUBAI //A team of academics from a business school in Dubai is helping two Iraqi colleges to re-emerge from the chaos of years of war, insurgency and unrest.

The state-owned University of Baghdad and privately owned Al Mansoor University College are bogged down by bureaucracy and lack support from local business and industry. Combined with a distrust of outsiders, it means anyone trying to help has a huge task.

But academics from the University of Dubai are making inroads into a two-year project to upgrade the universities with a $500,000 (Dh1.8 million) grant from the United States Agency for International Development.

It is an exercise in building trust, says Amina El Marzak, director of student and alumni affairs at the University of Dubai. "Only by being there have we been able to gain their trust.

"They trust us as people, and then as a university. Because the project is American and there is so much distrust of America it was difficult, but now, having been there as Arabs and coming from Dubai, they felt they could trust us. It was a really big thing."

For the academics, Iraq has been no holiday, said Dr Farouk Saleh, director of the university's MBA programme. "It's a real and present danger," he said. "We are escorted by security personnel, we wear an 18-kilogram flak jacket and do not leave the compound when we are not at the university."

Dr Saleh added: "But we want to enable them. Our mandate is to do this on their own soil and enable them to do this for themselves, rather than bringing them here. The motto of this project is to just provide assistance and discussions."

Several universities around the world are contributing to the mission, from the American University in Cairo to George Mason University in the US.

"This is one of various projects to help Iraq stand on its own two feet and it is an important part of our social responsibility as a university," Dr Saleh said.

The two institutions have been working with the University of Dubai since November. Owned by the Dubai Chamber of Commerce, the university is helping the schools to obtain international accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.

The process takes five to nine years even at established universities. Only three universities in the UAE are accredited with the association.

Dr Mohamed Ibrahim, dean of the college of business administration, said it was important to instil a culture of international accreditation and raise the goals and standards of educational institutions in Iraq.

"It's about creating a road map for them to achieve accreditation. Our commitment is two years but this is a long-term project for them," he said.

Dr Ibrahim visited the universities in November to carry out a needs-assessment study, and was joined by his colleagues on a second visit last month.

He says there is much work to be done. "There are three or four areas that need to be worked on, such as strategic planning, structuring their courses and the qualifications of their academics. At this point they are under-qualified."

The University of Dubai will play host to four academics from the Iraqi schools this year, mentoring them in areas such as teaching practice, lesson planning and examinations.

At both institutions, the university is helping to set up centres for internships and entrepreneurship, and continuing education.

At many institutions now, internships are a key part of the curriculum, Ms El Marzak said, but in Iraq, where there is almost no private enterprise, this is something totally missing from students' education.

"It's an integral part of preparing employable graduates," she said, "but universities there are about giving degrees and nothing more."

There is no career development or interaction with former students, which she said was key to securing funding for scholarships and securing job placement.

"Companies aren't interested in taking interns and the parents don't want the students to do it because of the security situation," she said. "With a purely government sector, they cannot take all the students."

The centres for entrepreneurship and continuing education will face similar challenges but will begin training workshops in September, run by the university's academics and local business leaders in areas such as leadership and marketing.

mswan@thenational.ae