Iraq´s college students flee a system under siege
San Francisco Chronicle
(01-18) 04:00 PST Baghdad -- Even before bombings at a university killed at least 65 students this week, officials said Iraq's higher education system was on the verge of collapse.
Faced with the lingering war and unrelenting sectarian violence, students by the thousands have been leaving campuses to return home or enroll at universities in other countries. Enrollment fell by more than half at some colleges in the past year alone, education officials said.
Meanwhile, Iraqi professors continue to be targeted for assassination and intimidation. According to Iraq's Higher Education Ministry, insurgent and militia groups have killed at least 280 academics since 2003, and 3,250 others have fled the country. The violence also has caused as many as 40 percent of Iraq's professionals to flee the country since the U.S.-led invasion nearly four years ago, according to the Brookings Institution, an independent research group in Washington.
But education officials say they are determined to carry on.
"It would be a big blow against all Iraq if universities closed down now," Basil Al-Khaleeb, 55, spokesman for the Higher Education Ministry, said before Tuesday's bombings at the largely Shiite Al-Mustansirya University. "We didn't stop during the past two wars, and we're working to continue during this war."
Iraq's higher education system was once considered the most advanced in the Middle East. Tuition is free at 20 government-run public universities, such as Baghdad University, and 47 technical institutes. Private colleges charge between $114 and $305 annually. But the system has declined dramatically in the past 20 years.
Twin car bombs near the gates of Al-Mustansirya University on Tuesday killed at least 65 students, mostly women, a university official said. Images of bloodstained notebooks and a burned-out minivan that students had been getting into were shown on satellite TV news stations.
Sais Hussein, 21, a junior majoring in geography at Baghdad University's School of Arts, said now he is unlikely to finish the school year.
"My mother was crying today because she saw the dead students and imagined I could be one of them," Hussein said in a telephone interview. "I would like to continue my classes, but my parents decided it's too dangerous for me to return to school. I don't know what to do."
The repercussions of a lack of security stretch across campuses in and around Baghdad.
The administrative affairs office at Baghdad University said earlier this month that enrollment at the school's main campus in the southern Jadiriya section was down by as much as 40 percent. At the Adhamiya district campus, enrollment dropped by more than half.
"Many, many (students) have postponed their studies or come to campus just once a week," said Zaineb Abdulmohee, a senior and computer science major at Baghdad University.
Abdulmohee, a 21-year-old who wore a head scarf and an ankle-length skirt, was interviewed last month at Baghdad University's Women's College. She estimated that out of 85 students in her program, only about 35 remained before Tuesday's attacks.
After the bombings, Al-Mustansirya University officials said Tuesday that they would close campus for at least two days. That decision follows a similar one taken last month by Baghdad University's main campus, which closed twice for five days after receiving threats, according to students and professors.
"If this (the violence) keeps up, I'm going to stop coming to my classes," said Ehab Hassoon, a 21-year-old senior in his final semester at Baghdad University's College of Science. "Life is more important than a diploma."
Students determined to pursue degrees are taking various measures to increase their safety, many of them transferring to schools closer to home or outside the country. Last month, students and their relatives seeking transfers crowded the narrow and frigid corridors of the Higher Education Ministry.
Ali Jabbar, 23, wanted a change from a technical school in the capital's troubled southern district of Dora to a school closer to his home in central Baghdad.
"It's too dangerous to continue traveling to Dora for my classes," Jabbar said.
A woman scurried from one office to another, seeking transcripts for a daughter studying in Syria.
"I was so worried about her," the woman said before she rushed ahead, focused on her pursuit. "What else could I do? I had to send her out of the country."
College instructors also are taking precautions.
Nihad Al-Rawi, 54, an assistant dean at Baghdad University and a professor of electrical engineering, has a gun stashed in his office."I don't want to use it, but what am I supposed to do if someone breaks into my office and tries to kidnap me? It's a fact of life here nobody can deny," Rawi said as he showed a reporter an ancient, American-manufactured revolver. "Sometimes I pray before I come here, because I never know what will happen on the way."