The Kurdistan Regional Government’s minister for higher education has frozen foreign investment in the sector, in the latest effort to tackle low standards of teaching in the semi-autonomous Iraqi province.

Dlawer Ala’Aldeen has turned away institutions from the US and Europe, including the US’ Harvard University and a consortium of French universities interested in opening a law school in Kurdistan. “We need to sort ourselves out and put our house in order first,” says Ala’Aldeen.

Since December, the minister has closed two dentistry and three pharmaceutical colleges at Cihan University, British Royal University and Hawleri Taybat University for Science & Technology, for failing to meet required standards,

“These colleges ignored ministry guidelines and there were shortages in terms of staff and resources,” he says.

One of the universities affected, Cihan University in Erbil, had enrolled 180 students at its pharmaceutical school in the current academic year when its capacity was suitable for fewer than 50. The mark for end-of-year tests in English ranged from 14-76 per cent, with almost half of the students gaining a mark below 50 per cent.

Poor standards at the colleges prompted Ala’Aldeen to close them for one month in December to allow them “to get their act together”, he says.

However, the three universities continued as before. The minister responded by closing the colleges permanently in January. This resulted in a series of hearings in the Kurdistan National Assembly (parliament) during the past month to approve or reject his decision.

Members of parliament have repeatedly failed to agree on whether to allow the universities to reopen. The Speaker of Parliament Kemal Kerkuki postponed the hearings indefinitely on 26 February.

Ala’Aldeen says efforts to address the shortcomings of the third-level education in the region will continue.

“There is no culture of audit,” says Ala’Aldeen. “We’ve set up a committee to start assessing quality and practice to push up the standards of all universities.”

Poor teaching standards are affecting the ability of Iraqi students to enrol at colleges overseas.

“Standards of Iraqi students are not what we require,” says Allen Swales, international officer for Cambridge University, part of the British Universities Iraq Consortium (BUIC). “We only accepted one student from Iraq last year. There are concerns about the level of English.”

On 1 March, Ala’Aldeen announced a $100m budget for scholarships to study abroad. Aimed at undergraduate and postgraduate students, the ministry hopes it will raise the standard of English and enable students to benefit from an international education. PhD students and lecturers will also be required to research abroad for at least six months.

He is also reviewing the structure of the education system and the ministry itself, “to establish a mechanism that promotes competition, ensures quality and fights corruption”, he says.

In the most recent academic year, which ended in June 2009, about 70,000 students enrolled at universities in Kurdistan. About 45,000 of the 70,000 went to private institutions, where tuition fees average $5,000 a year. The private universities earned $900m for the four-year undergraduate courses alone in the past year. State-run universities do not charge fees.