Empty Classrooms and Black Market Textbooks

For Iraqi youth, opportunities to attend school have diminished. Without renewed investment in the country’s education system, the next 30 years will witness the maturation of a generation lacking its predecessor’s skills and training — reshaping its socio-economic environment.

A second grade class at a primary school in Salah al-Din Province poses for a class photo, 1997.

When he became Prime Minister in 2006, Nouri al-Maliki allocated $150 million to construct and develop Iraq’s public school system. By the time he stepped down in August 2014, amid the chaos of ISIS’s advance, only six percent of this project had been implemented. This failure exemplified the matrix of corruption, political disengagement, and resource shortage that has handicapped Iraq’s once powerful public education system – and reshaped the socio-economic environment in which its young people will come of age.

In 2012 – the last year for which there are reliable attendance data – only 53 percent of boys and 45 percent of girls finished secondary school. The current security crisis has accelerated this trend: thousands of displaced children from ISIS-held areas lack access to educational materials, and many others must drop out to supplement family income in the midst of ongoing financial hardship. In a country where nearly 40 percent of the population is younger than 15 years, today’s education deficit presents policymakers in Baghdad with an existential challenge.

The trajectory of decline for Iraq’s education system over four decades is a tragic story of lost opportunity and human capital. Today, the opportunity to attend school has diminished. Yet a history of public education administration offers precedent for redevelopment. Following a multi-year education gap, Iraq’s next 30 years will witness the maturation of a generation lacking its predecessor’s skills and training. With over half its youth out of the classroom, Iraq will struggle to innovate beyond its twentieth century oil economy.

Precedent for Public Education

Historically, Iraq’s public education system filled an important social role, particularly for the country’s isolated rural and semi-rural populations. During the 1970s and 1980s, primary and secondary schools developed to provide learning materials, free meals, public healthcare, and transportation for their students. For example, one professor from Mosul who attended the Muruj Model School in 1971-1977, recalled: “We had a nutritional system managed by the state. Students were given stationary, notebooks, pens, and books. My classmates lived on the same street; the schoolhouse helped us feel part of a cohesive community.”

The Baathist-led Iraqi government envisaged primary and secondary institutions as key incubators for its nationalist ethos. After hosting the Arab Conference for the Eradication of Illiteracy in 1976, Baghdad policymakers passed the Compulsory Education Law mandating that all children between the ages of six and 15 attend school or face imprisonment. By 1980, this legislation cemented the government’s role as custodian of free public education, raised literacy rates across many provinces, and forced private institutions to close in Iraq. In 1985, UNESCO concluded that primary schools had a nearly 100 percent attendance rate.

Under Saddam Hussein’s regime, Iraq spent six percent of its GDP and 20 percent of its overall budget on school construction, teacher salaries, and literacy programs. By 1987 the country’s literacy rate had increased to 80 percent, up from 52 percent in 1977. The emphasis on education spending translated onto the country’s social hierarchy, elevating the teaching profession at primary, secondary, and university levels. As one Baghdad resident noted: “The teacher had reverence, had authority. We students feared them more than we did our own fathers. This authority forced us to become receptive to learning, to raise our standards, our ethical commitment, and our academic achievement within the school.”

Trajectory of Decline

This system suffered under international sanctions in the 1990s, creating infrastructure shortages and competing exigencies for students and teachers that undermined education provision. Monthly salaries for instructors dropped from a high of $1,500 to under $300, forcing many to seek secondary employment. Between 1990 and 1994, over 12,000 teachers were forced from their positions due to insufficient compensation. Classroom materials like pens, paper, books, and even sheet music were banned – freezing national curricula in their 1989 iterations. While Baghdad spent $620 per student in 1989, by 2002 it only provided $62 – as politicization of the education system diverted public funds to military spending and other priorities.

For students, the sanctions’ impact was particularly strong. In 1996, a UN team surveying Iraq’s economic crisis concluded:

“A visible phenomenon is the rise in the number of elementary-age children working as petty vendors. It is not clear if these youth who work as petty vendors take up these activities outside of school hours, or whether they have dropped out of school altogether. We suspect the latter case.”

Commodity shortages and price increases translated into heightened corruption among those teachers who remained. As an instructor in Baghdad recalled: “One of my colleague’s relatives came to my office, and said: ‘I failed a subject. The teacher would let me pass for a carton of cigarettes, that’s more than I want to spend. Could you help me pass for free?’” Similar instances of corruption and illicit patronage increased across Iraq, undermining existing hierarchies between student and instructor – administrator and citizen – on which the country’s politics had been premised. In the late 1990s, the common phrase mayan emerged to describe the removal of psychological barriers between master and pupil.

Over 89 percent of Iraq’s youth could read and write in 1990; by 2015, that figure had fallen to 82 percent. The sanctions decade gave way to a period of successive regime change, instability, and internecine conflict that kept many students home. Widespread looting after the 2003 US-led invasion gutted many schools of their supplies and equipment, including computers, desks, pens, and copper wiring. Entire libraries burned. Persistent financial hardship, exacerbated by corruption within the new Iraqi state, as well as rising violence forced many instructors to flee abroad or to the Iraqi Kurdish region by 2007-2008, resulting in a massive country-wide brain drain. Iraq has not replaced these lost resources, and its public education system remains stuck 25 years in the past in terms of curricula, equipment, and infrastructure. Today, only seven percent of Iraqi students have reliable access to the internet.

De-Baathification after 2003, coupled with diminished enrollment in teaching colleges across the country, created an acute shortage of the qualified personnel needed to reinvigorate the education sector. “The worst teachers during the 1960s appointed to remote villages were better than half the teachers in the cities today,” explained one Moslawi lawyer who attended secondary school in a town three kilometers from the Syrian border; “my teachers trained in specialized academies, and they took elementary education seriously.” Major enrollment disparities exist across the country as the Baghdad government struggles to distribute limited resources to marginalized and isolated populations. Rural districts, where adult and non-formal training programs helped isolated communities integrate into the Iraqi economy in the 1970s and 1980s, have experienced atavism to nearly 70 percent literacy. In Diyala province, for example, the provincial government demolished 179 dilapidated schoolhouses — forcing parents to shuttle their children to institutions far across the region. In this and similar areas, attendance rates are abysmal, with only four percent of rural children enrolled in secondary school.

The country’s southern governorates have been particularly hard-hit by declining educational funding and infrastructure. In Muthanna, Kerbala, and Maysan provinces, secondary school enrollment hovered at 7-11 percent in 2014. In Ninewa, Wassit, and Salah al-Din, the rate was 12-15 percent. Of those who managed to attend class during the 2014 academic year, 68 percent of students failed their exams – evincing a pattern that has left six-year age gaps between students in the same grade. These students must study in buildings that often lack heat, clean water, electricity, sanitation, libraries, and furniture. Many classrooms are used in successive rotations throughout the day, and a 2015 Ministry of Education assessment concluded that Iraq is in need of 9,000 new schools. According to one teacher from southern Iraq, “students have been humiliated and insulted. They have been, in some cases, forced to study in buildings made from mud.”

Physical decay has been compounded by the increasing power of sectarian forces within Iraq’s education sector. While public schools have long been ideological incubators – particularly for the Saddam regime’s nationalist Arab identity project in the 1980s and 1990s – post-2003 lawlessness incentivized divisive, sectarian, and poorly-trained administrators to assert control over public education delivery. The result has been heightened corruption within the public education sector, which has siphoned away much-needed resources from students. For example, in November 2016, over 4,000 textbooks were stolen from the Ministry of Education and sold on the black market, following a nationwide shortage. One professor of public policy at Baghdad University expressed his frustration thus:

“If the UN sanctions ate away at the education structure, then the US occupation turned that structure into a shadow….In most cases, the good instructors left their teaching posts out of fear of assassination by militias or because they were forced out by new administrators. This situation led to ignorant, even illiterate people taking charge of our primary and secondary schools based on political affiliation or nepotism.”

Another professor in Basra echoed these sentiments, noting that the story of Iraq’s public education “showed how democracy was not applied in the right way regarding the people’s education.” His colleague concluded more bluntly: “There is no role for education now. My students would rather drop out in the fifth grade and join the militias.”

Private schools, which disappeared from Iraq decades ago, flourished after 2003 to fill the deficit left by a failing public system. During the sanctions period, teachers often supplemented meager income by tutoring students in their spare time. A poet from Mosul recalled how “one teacher informed us: ‘I will teach you as much as I am paid.’ He only earned 3,000 dinar [$2]. We did not see him much after that.” Today, most teachers still supplement their salaries by giving private instruction, creating an added workload that often conflicts with their full-time jobs. Students whose families lack the resources to hire these instructors often suffer relative to more affluent peers during state-run examinations – the results of which determine where, or whether, a student can attend university. Speaking to the International Crisis Group, a private school director explained:

“Private-school students have a greater chance to do well in exams. Their teachers know which topics to prep…If something goes wrong, their families come to me and say, “but we are paying you!”, expecting their children to pass….So teachers sell exam questions to students to make sure they succeed.”

In 2012, the Ministry of Education granted 1,200 licenses for private institutions across the country, augmenting 600 schools already constructed in Baghdad. While many public schools fit 60-70 students into a single classroom, these new alternatives offer class sizes of 15 students, modern facilities, and guarantees of gaining students entry into the country’s top universities. Such an education is costly, with a year’s tuition of around $1,200-$1,500. In a country where the average family earns $7,200 per year, this price tag is often too high. Those who can afford tuition and related costs for supplies mostly come from the country’s upper middle class — a reality that has further cleaved Iraq’s youngest generation along socio-economic lines.

Education on the Move

On 13 December UNICEF reported that 35,000 children have fled Mosul since the launch of military operations to liberate the city from ISIS. These young refugees join the existing population of over one million displaced children across Iraq, and 3.5 million children currently out of school nationally. Since the ISIS incursions across the country in 2014, the UN has identified 135 attacks on education facilities and personnel. In two years, one in five Iraqi schools has fallen out of use due to conflict, and many others have been converted into makeshift shelters for internally displaced people (IDP). While the Ministry of Education struggles to address structural flaws, inadequate service provision, and decaying infrastructure in the public education sector, it has few resources to reach students forced out of the classroom by conflict. 

Since 2014, UNESCO and UNICEF have launched broad public sector modernization efforts, designed primarily to strengthen Iraq’s capacity to deliver education and engage vulnerable communities. In May 2015, the Japanese government provided $2,000,000 to construct schools and pay teacher salaries among IDP communities. Within a year, these efforts helped bridge the secondary education gap — particularly for 14,500 displaced girls — across Iraq through provision of safe learning spaces, textbooks, remedial classes, and educational television programming. In September 2016, UNICEF and the Ministry of Education launched a back-to-school campaign, reaching 1.4 million children with information about enrollment, supplies, and transportation. That year, UN-funded programs helped bring 116,000 children back into the classroom, construct pre-fabricated schools for 42,000 students, and train more than 2,350 education staff.

While positive, these efforts lack the funding and international support to reach the majority of Iraq’s displaced youth population. The UN initiatives primarily focus on reaching children inside displacement camps; however, many families — particularly the long-term displaced — have sheltered in areas outside government- or internationally-funded settlements. The post-2014 surge in these non-camp refugees has strained public institutions in host communities unable to absorb the influx. According to data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 66 percent of IDPs currently live with host families, in unfinished and abandoned buildings, or other informal shelters. As the Iraqi government looks to manage an ongoing economic crisis, the financial onus for reaching these populations will increasingly fall on international organizations — many of which remain severely underfunded or restricted by ongoing insecurity.

Ultimately, reaching Iraq’s disenfranchised youth must be a critical priority for Baghdad and its international partners as they seek to construct national stability post-ISIS. Today, many of the country’s school-age children do not understand the worth of pursuing an education in decaying and overcrowded classrooms. They have never lived in a country with a well-functioning public education system. Yet, their parents’ experiences in the twentieth century indicates that Iraq can cultivate functioning education infrastructure, and that the foundation for such service provision exists — albeit battered by three decades of war. Such memories offer a framework for reaching a generation out of school, training the engineers, public administrators, lawyers, architects, and artists needed to rebuild the country.

In 2015, a retired political scientist from Basra declared: “How painful it is to remember my elementary years — not only because I miss being young…but because I miss the feeling of hope that came with a good education.” His words should serve as a reminder of how schooling enfranchises young generations in their country’s future. Without renewed investment in the country’s struggling public education system Iraq may lose the greatest resource of all — its youth. 

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