By Zep Kalb for Al-Monitor. Any opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Iran Business News.
In the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the country's educational system all but collapsed. Illiteracy rates have exploded. Universities have turned into sectarian battlegrounds.
Systemic violence — including beatings, rape and death threats — has forced students and faculty out of campuses. As state provision of higher education has receded, private donors have set up alternative institutions, often with a sectarian and religious twist. Foreign actors have also stepped in to fill the void.
Before the US-led invasion, education indicators in oil-rich, Baathist-controlled Iraq improved similarly as in other middle-income countries, and in several ways even more so. The country’s first university, Baghdad University, opened its doors in 1957. In 1968, the government made education free and compulsory at all levels.
In 1977, the eradication of illiteracy was made legally binding. The developmental push appeared to be working. By 1980, Iraq had already achieved near universal primary school enrollment.
Saddam Hussein’s devastating eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s and the sanctions imposed by the West over his invasion of Kuwait in the 1990s slowed these gains.
By 2000, the literacy rate of youth aged 15-24 years old stood at 84.8%, slightly higher than that of regional neighbor Egypt. The gender gap was also narrowing: Female literacy rates stood at 80.5% in 2000, a figure Egypt reached only in 2006. At the same time, underinvestment in education by a cash-strapped government led to an aged and creaking infrastructure.
For all its ills, the collapse of the Baathist regime in 2003 and its replacement with a US-installed government wrecked the country’s educational system. Junior, inexperienced American officers who failed to understand the complexities of maintaining peace between the sects were put in charge of higher education.