Baghdad to Longbridge, the sector is on a mission to harness skills in a time of crisis. Martin Whittaker reports
British colleges are helping to rebuild further education in Iraq as the country attempts to restore an FE system that was largely dismantled by Saddam Hussein.
The Association of Colleges is helping Iraqi college managers to improve their skills and get access to the funds and expertise they need to re-skill the country's workforce.
Managers from Iraqi colleges have visited the UK to learn about the latest teaching and management methods and the use of technology in further education and training, while UK college chiefs recently attended Rebuild Iraq, a four-day conference in Jordan.
Iraqi FE, one of the best in the Middle East before the 1980s, will need cash for buildings, materials and lecturers' training.
One problem is that much of the help for Iraq comes via international agencies such as the World Bank and the United Nations, which Iraqis often find bureaucratic and difficult to deal with. Iraqi-born Ali Hadawi, vice-principal of Greenwich community college, which leads the project, said it could go no further without extra resources.
Much of the work has focused on showing Iraqi colleges how to bid for funds. So far, 17 countries have pledged around $398 million (pound;208m) to the World Bank Iraq Trust Fund.
"It's sad that we know there are substantial funds pledged by donor countries, but no one seems to be able to work out how to access them," said Mr Hadawi.
"Our Iraqi colleagues aren't used to accessing funds from international organisations such as the World Bank or the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. These organisations aren't open and accessible. It's very frustrating for both sides because we're keen to get this work done.
"There are students in the middle in Iraq suffering because they don't have the labs or access to materials, and there are lecturers there who don't have access to training and the latest techniques in teaching and learning."
Mr Hadawi said colleges could "take in significant proportions of unemployed people from the local labour market, re-skill them and release them back to help regenerate the rest of the economy".
Jo Clough, the AoC's international director, is optimistic. She says the association aims to get help from ministers after the general election to raise funds from a range of potential sources, including pound;2.6m that could be available through Unesco, which has already had talks with the AoC. To the British taxpayer, this is small compared with the cost of the allied invasion and subsequent occupation of the country, which the Ministry of Defence puts at nearly pound;3 billlion.
Ms Clough said: "We won't just be asking for cash. We also want help to get at funding that might already be available."
Ivan Lewis, the skills minister, has been "extremely supportive" of the AoC's project, she said. If he is still in the job after the general election, colleges hope to meet him shortly after May 5.
Until the 1980s, the education system in Iraq was well-regarded, but it declined as public funding was siphoned off for military use. It then deteriorated rapidly during the 1990-91 Gulf War and the later economic sanctions.
Its technical and vocational education system suffered a sharp drop in student numbers in the decade up to 2000-01 when enrolment fell from nearly 148,000 to 66,000.
An analysis of education in Iraq by Unesco found an urgent need to review the vocational curriculum, devised when Iraq's economy and industrial base was expanding. The study detailed a dilapidated infrastructure, outdated equipment and an urgent need to update teaching skills.
Other colleges in the project include Huddersfield, Derby, and City college, Brighton and Hove.