Education in Iraq, a luxury not accessible to all

Sunday 27/11/2016
Government failure to print and distribute school books for free placed financial burdens on Iraqi parents that many cannot afford. (Oumayma Omar)

Baghdad - “I don’t have a book to study”. That posting went viral among Iraqi social media users and fuelled anger and frustration among Iraqi students and their parents over the Ministry of Education’s failure to provide learning materials for the current school year.
The phrase was written by a stu­dent on a blank page of a test paper at his public school in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, prompting his teacher to post it on social media to expose the sharp deterioration of learning conditions in Iraq.
While violence and displacement have deprived hundreds of thou­sands of Iraqi children of education, scores of others struggle to secure basic learning materials as there is a shortage of textbooks, which are usually distributed by the Ministry of Education free of charge.
Amal Hussein, like many Iraqi parents, has been hunting for text­books for her three children in bookstalls and stores of Mutanabbi Street, Baghdad’s famous book mar­ket, where copies are available but at inflated prices.
“Schools did not show any con­sideration for the difficult economic situation in which we are living by pressuring the students to buy the missing textbooks on the black mar­ket… This is sheer ugly abuse,” Hus­sein said.
Next to Hussein, Samer Moham­ad, a high school student, was bar­gaining over the price of a science textbook. “The price they are ask­ing is humongous. We simply can­not afford to buy books on the black market. We don’t understand how these books that we need for our academic education are available here, while most schools, especially outside Baghdad, don’t have them,” Mohamad said.
Once among the best in the Arab world, Iraq’s educational institu­tions have been debilitated by a dec­ade of sanctions, a US-led invasion followed by years of internal unrest and the war against the Islamic State (ISIS). Lack of resources, the politi­cisation of the educational system, uneven emigration and internal dis­placement of teachers and students, security threats and corruption have hampered education in the country.
Halim al-Samarrai, owner of Bagh­dad’s Dar al-Hikma Publishing, cited corruption as the main reason for textbook shortages, noting that they exist in PDF format on the minis­try’s website but publishers are not allowed to print them and sell them to students.
“The problem is that the minis­try’s bids and contracts for book printing are exaggerated because of bribes and partisanship that are keeping away printers. Also, some parties are making big gains by sell­ing surplus books from last year in the black market,” Samarrai said.
The Ministry of Education said it should not be blamed for the book crisis, pinning it on the country’s difficult economic situation. “The ministry has requested 213 billion dinars ($183 million) this year for book printing for an estimated 8 mil­lion students all over Iraq but it only got 75 billion dinars ($64.3 million), which were paid to settle last year’s bills,” ministry Director-General Mohamad Youssef said.
Youssef blasted printers, whom he accused of greed. “We have fixed the printing price per book at 98 dinars (8 US cents) instead of 209 dinars (18 cents) but most printing houses re­jected the offer,” he said.
He pointed out that the ministry is under the obligation to update the curricula and book editions regular­ly in line with an agreement with UN education agencies.
Economist Maytham Louaibi said the crisis in the education system in Iraq has been going on for years “but it was attenuated in the past by the existence of excess copies of earlier editions”.
“However, with the introduction of the trend of changing curricula and updating textbooks, earlier edi­tions were no longer relevant or us­able and, in many instances, the so-called updates were irrelevant and made for lucrative reasons reflecting corruption (in the administration),” Louaibi said.
MP Awatef Naameh of the Reform Front bloc questioned the reason behind frequent revisions of the curricula. “The minister’s insistence to change the curriculum every year is a bit strange. It implies that the ministry has to print new textbooks continuously at a time he (the min­ister) is complaining about poor al­locations,” she said.
Although it is supposed to be free at all levels, Iraqi parents are strug­gling to ensure an education for their children.
At a bookstall on Mutanabbi Street, a mother of two has been im­ploring vendors for free textbooks. “My children are refusing to go to class without their books, which cost more than 100,000 dinars ($80), a sum that I simply cannot afford,” she said requesting anonymity.