The Road to Learning Can Be Dangerous

BAQUBA — University professors now enjoy increased pay, but in the face of threats and isolation, there is little they are able to do in the world of academics.

All that has got better is the pay packages. Under the regime of former dictator Saddam Hussein — and primarily because of the U.S.-backed and UN-enforced economic sanctions — Iraq academics in Iraq were given severely low wages, sometimes less than ten dollars a month.

The income is now a good deal better. “We have started to buy back what we sold during the last 10 years of the previous regime,” Prof. Abdullah Mahdi from Diyala University in Baquba, 40 km northeast of Baghdad, told IPS. “We had sold our furniture and all we had just to eat.”

“Now almost all professors have their own cars for the first time,” said Prof. Adnan Juma’a from the university.

Today, a newly appointed university teacher can receive a salary of 500,000 Iraqi Dinars (400 dollars). A senior professor can get 1,000 dollars a month.

And yet, not many say life is better.

The university campus is located seven kilometres from the town. Many professors have been killed or kidnapped by militiamen and criminals en route.

“Professors, employees and students have stopped coming to the colleges and to their offices for fear of being kidnapped or killed,” the head of one department told IPS on condition of anonymity.

Through the last academic year students stayed away for seven months due to U.S.-led military operations and violent actions by various militias in the city.

These conditions have forced deans, professors, students and employees to try to work and study at alternative locations.

“We used the buildings of some colleges located in the centre of Baquba,” said an employee from the College of Education. “The centre is to an extent protected by the police and army.”

But the future of the new term, that began in the middle of December, remains uncertain, says Hassan Abdul Rahman from the department of history. “We all know that the syllabus cannot be completed.”

Despite the conditions, many students are more than keen to get on with it. “Students who attended the classes were only 55 percent of the total number, yet each classroom was very crowded due to the small size of the new rooms — of course without air conditioning and even without electricity,” Rahman said.

“We cannot get back to our old building that has a large number of classrooms,” said a student. “The road to the college is controlled by militants. Even Iraqi and U.S. soldiers feel unsafe on that road.”

Colleges share the buildings that are accessible. “So each college occupies the building three days a week,” Ali Thamir, a fourth stage student at the university told IPS. “This means that coming to college is limited to three days only.”

“At the end of the last academic year, in the final exams, each college took the whole building till it completed all the exams, and after that another college started a new round of exams,” said a professor, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It was tiresome for all, not only for students but also for teachers.”

The staff are on their own in arranging all this. “No help of any kind such as books and stationery can be obtained from Baghdad or, let’s say the government,” said a dean’s assistant.

Following the U.S.-led operations in Diyala province in mid-June, the number of students increased somewhat. A number of students who had gone abroad returned and were allowed to take their exams.

“We completed our exams in six days, sometimes we had two exams in a day,” Shatha Ismail, a third-stage student told IPS. “A student who never attended a single lecture from the beginning of the academic year was allowed to take the final exams.” This affects the status of the students and the standing of their qualifications, teachers say.

This time, six months after the launch of the new security plan in Diyala, the colleges started the academic year on time. But this was still in the limited and cramped facilities.

“Attendance is better but there are not enough classrooms,” a lecturer in the College of Basic Education told IPS. “The Americans recently visited the university and promised to secure the road to the old buildings, so let’s see if they do that.”

(*Ahmed, our correspondent in Iraq’s Diyala province, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, our U.S.-based specialist writer on Iraq who travels extensively in the region)