Iraq’s chronic mismatch between education, employment

Sunday 30/07/2017
On the fence. Iraqi students chat at the University of Mosul as they arrive to take their exams. (AFP)

Washington - The celebration of many Ira­qi university graduates af­ter obtaining their degrees is likely to be dampened by the uncertainty of their career prospects amid a mismatch between the country’s labour force and its job market.
The problem begins before their enrolments into universities. Offi­cials are blaming the Iraqi Ministry of Education for failing to adapt to major fundamental shifts in the country’s demographic make-up and for what they describe as its “lax policy” in accepting students into colleges.
Iraq has 80 public and private uni­versities. Acceptances, especially into public colleges, are strictly de­pendent on scores on official exams, known as the Tests of General Sec­ondary Education. Top scorers get to pick their fields, with most of them going into medicine. Second best scorers often choose engineering. Lowest scorers get “the institute,” Iraqi jargon for vocational educa­tion.
Historically, the state played a dominant role in educating young Iraqis and placing them in jobs. The international embargo that Iraq suf­fered from 1990-2003, after its in­vasion of Kuwait, made Iraqis even more dependent on their state.
Despite hyperinflation and the government’s dwindling resources, medical students were locked in competition over appointments at state hospitals. The ones with high marks completed their required residency programmes at hospitals of their choice, usually the more prestigious ones in big cities. Medi­cal students with lower marks were assigned to hospitals in the villages and the countryside.
Baghdad appointed top engineers to positions at its oil companies, in­frastructure authority or even at its weapons-production facilities. Top scoring students in humanities were accepted to higher education pro­grammes and, once they acquired their PhDs, were appointed profes­sors at state universities. The state bureaucracy and law enforcement agencies absorbed the rest of the la­bour force.
The over-involvement of the Iraqi state in educating citizens and giv­ing them jobs worked as long as the population was not as urbanised. However, with a population boom and urbanisation, Baghdad was overwhelmed. No resources — oil revenue or otherwise — could sus­tain the old culture of educating and employing Iraqis. The US Agency for International Development report for 2012 stated: “The government and public sector employs 40% of those employed.” The Washington Post reported last year that there were there were 7 million people on the Iraqi public payroll.
Iraqi government agencies seem aware of the problem of its unsus­tainable public sector. In its “Nation­al Development Plan 2013-2017,” the Ministry of Planning argued that the country’s “transformation to a mar­ket economy faced a troubled en­vironment,” including a “de­lay [in] legislation such as the privatisation law.” The ministry complained of a failure in the “restructur­ing of the public sector and public institutions and the absence of the institutional environment supporting the private sector.”
Despite acknowledg­ing that the private sec­tor should play a bigger role, the same 2013-17 plan said that it “aimed at attaining the adequate level of economic participa­tion based on… guaranteeing compatibility between work­force supply and demand,” an argument that suggests Bagh­dad believes it has a role in making the education sector and the labour market match.
Governments in free market economies, such as in Germany and the United States, are usu­ally aware of recurring mismatch­es between the labour force and the job market. New technologies leave the unskilled and semi-skilled behind.
To realise the full potential of workers, governments offer free training programmes to upgrade skills and reintegrate workers. Still, Western governments do not per­ceive themselves as regulating the labour market, at least not by con­trolling the supply side, even when giving workers a chance for self-improvement. In free economies, students can go to whatever col­lege that accepts them and major in whatever domain they want, assum­ing they pass the needed tests.
Transforming Iraq from social­ism to a free market requires reha­bilitating the Iraqi government from its addiction to oil revenue. Iraqi economist Muhammed Ali Zainy said: “Patronage, made possible by oil, undermines the private sector.” Entrepreneurship is not as attrac­tive when Iraqis can make money easier by tapping into government resources.
Iraq is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, ranking 166th out of 176 countries on Trans­parency International’s “Corruption Perceptions Index.”
“The only solution comes through uprooting the whole system and re­placing it with bureaucrats appoint­ed based on merit, rather than on political or tribal affiliations,” Zainy said.
Harith Hasan al-Qarawee, a fellow at the Central European University, blamed the nature of the Iraqi econ­omy. “Iraq is a rentier state with 95% of its budget coming from oil revenue,” he said. “While the oil sector itself is not sizeable, its contribution to the GDP is esti­mated to be as high as 65%.”
This dependence continued even after Iraq was no longer a socialist economy, Qarawee said, arguing that the current Iraqi con­figuration “seems to be independent of ideological differences in political economy.” The Iraqi scholar said that dependence on oil was “similar in Baghdad as in Erbil and similar in Baghdad today as it was in Baghdad 30 years ago.”
Qarawee concluded: “The irony is that if Iraq was to move from a com­mand economy to a less regulated and market-oriented one, the role of the state will continue to be crucial in ‘commanding’ such a transition.”