Iraq’s chronic mismatch between education, employment
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.”