Building foundations for international relations

Leicester is forging key relationships and developing research and curriculum projects in Kurdistan
Building foundations for international relations

A year ago, Michael Green, Leicester’s director of strategic partnerships in the International Office, visited Kurdistan on a trade mission. “I quickly realised that something very big was about to happen,” he says.

What he saw was that although The Autonomous Region of Kurdistan, to give it its official title, is politically a part of Iraq, it differs from Iraq ethnically and in terms of its relative economic and political stability. Kurdistan has plentiful reserves of oil and gas which the government is using to reinforce social stability through increasing quickly the quality of healthcare, infrastructure and education for the population. The extent to which the economy is booming is reflected in the rapid expansion of air connections to Kurdistan.

Importantly for Leicester, one of the Kurdish government’s key priorities for this boom time is higher education, badly neglected during the years when the previous regime was in power. Over recent years, it has invested in its existing universities and built new ones, put more money into postgraduate education, and, last year, announced a $100 million scholarship programme, which is fully funding 400 young academics a year for five years to study overseas for Masters or PhD programmes. The preferred destination for many of these scholarship students is the UK, and Leicester’s aim is to position itself at the top of  Kurdistan’s UK universities list.

However, Leicester is keen to differentiate itself from institutions looking merely to boost international recruitment. Its emphasis has been on building partnerships, with research and curriculum projects to the fore, and developing personal connections and academic relationships that are designed to last.

Professor Douglas Tallack, the University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor (International), gave a plenary address at the ‘Revitalizing Kurdish Higher Education’ conference last December, and, since then, academics from Geology, Historical Studies, the English Language Teaching Unit, Museum Studies, and Archaeology & Ancient History have visited six Kurdish universities and many cultural and non-governmental organisations, as well as appearing on current affairs programmes on Kurdish television. In the Autumn, colleagues from Politics and International Relations, Biological Sciences, Computer Sciences, Mathematics, Geography and Translation Studies will expand cooperation. The new Anfal Centre, now being completed in Erbil, documenting the previous regime’s programme against the Kurds, could benefit from Leicester’s ten years experience of running the Stanley Burton Centre for Holocaust Studies.

Dr Green said: “Future sustainability of recruitment in Kurdistan depends on having networks in the country and showing that we were not just interested in taking. We are showing that we want to use the areas we are strong in to build academic capacity.”

Viv Golding, programme director of PhD Research at Leicester’s School of Museum Studies, visited Kurdistan last spring and identified a range of possibilities, from providing short courses there on museum display to helping the country make the most of its globally important collections of artefacts. Teams of Leicester researchers will be carrying out historical surveys of these collections. Ruth Young, Senior Lecturer in Archaeology, similarly hopes that academics from Leicester will become involved in joint archaeological projects in a region which has a rich archaeological heritage.

Roey Sweet, Head of Leicester’s School of Historical Studies, who visited Kurdistan in the spring, had discussions with the Governor of Erbil about using Leicester’s expertise in urban conservation to ensure that the past is preserved. Professor Sweet says that student recruitment benefits from face-to-face meetings. “It is a huge step for most of these guys, who haven’t even got a passport,” she says. “Going to a university where they have met someone who is probably going to be teaching them is very reassuring.” It also provides Leicester with assurance on quality issues.

Dave Hall, Registrar and Secretary, has played a pivotal role in developing links in Kurdistan, reflecting the University’s commitment to partnering with overseas organisations as part of local and regional capacity building in higher education. He said: “The University’s programme in Kurdistan is a good example of the success that can be achieved when staff work collaboratively across the academic/administrative divide. The leadership and support provided by administrative colleagues has been key to enhancing our academic purpose in Kurdistan.”

An invaluable source of help to Leicester in shaping and establishing partnerships has been PhD student Karzan Karim who has accompanied staff on their visits to Kurdistan and used his extensive contacts to introduce Leicester academics to some of the key players in his home country. Stephen O’Connor, Director of Development at Leicester, said: “Karzan has clearly shown how Leicester graduates can continue to be involved with their University in many different ways and help to ensure that the University continues to grow and flourish. The Development Office was able to identify the initial opportunity, make the key introductions and provide ongoing collaborative support to help underpin the success of this project.”

Professor Tallack observes that “the University’s engagement with Kurdistan points to internationalisation being at its best and most long-lasting, when it is mutually beneficial. We will continue to build on these promising developments."

This article originally appeared in LE1 Autumn 2011.

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