Iraqi Higher-Education Officials Visit Oklahoma

9-12-05 - Oklahoma universities are helping Iraqi officials update their higher-education curriculum and provide technical help to increase Iraq's oil production.

About 15 Iraqi higher-education officials and an oil ministry official visited the University of Oklahoma, the University of Tulsa and Oklahoma State University last week. Langston and Cameron universities have also participated in the program.

Iraqis have a big appetite for higher education in spite of years of economic sanctions that isolated them from the rest of the world and from scientific developments and other research, OU assistant professor Tom Owens said.

Owens directs Al Sharaka Program for Higher Education in Iraq, a U.S. Agency for International Development-funded, $5 million project meant to rebuild Iraq's colleges.

The 22-month project has provided leadership training, computer labs and thousands of books to five Iraqi universities. The agency awarded more than $20 million in grants in 2003 to five groups of U.S. universities, with each group addressing different needs in Iraq's higher-education system.

"Iraq has a high regard for learning," Owens said. "...That's very clearly valued in the Middle East in a way that it's not here."

The country led the region in higher education before Saddam Hussein's regime, Owens said. Residents had no access to outside books, scientific journals and much more while their country was under United Nations and U.S. sanctions following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Iraq's colleges started updating their equipment, training and knowledge _ and repairing damaged buildings _ in 2003 after the U.S.-led invasion.

Iraqi officials toured TU's north campus, seeing how local researchers could test their ideas on industry-sized facilities for petroleum engineering. TU professors also told them about the possibilities of a university providing answers and products to industries.

The Iraqis asked not to be named for their safety.

The officials want Oklahoma universities to help the Iraq higher-education system establish new academic departments.

They also want to tap into technology not available in Iraq, which had the third-largest proven crude oil reserves among the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries members in 2003.

Owens has seen plenty of professors show interest in continuing to work with the Iraqis, but he does not know if OU as a whole will commit to it.