The three men, deans of the fine arts schools of Baghdad, Mosul, and Basra, were in London to learn how Britain's major art institutions do business. This, the visit of the Iraqi minister for education to London today and a symposium on Iraqi higher education in London last month are part of initiatives by the British Council and British universities to help rebuild the shattered academic infrastructure of Iraq, widely seen as an important first step to recovery for Iraq.
"Education changes lives," explains Wendy Jordan, the British Council's education adviser for the Middle East. "In a modern economy you need highly trained people with specialist skills. Education feeds into the economy and into industry. There are very broad benefits." To help reconstruct Iraq, the Government is looking to revitalise Iraq's universities.
There is a lot to be done. Even before the invasion, the bombings and the lootings, higher education in Iraq was in a miserable state. The most profound problems and the ones the UK is doing most to address date back more than 20 years.
As an academic in Iraq in the Eighties, Professor Nazar Amin of Sulaimani University witnessed the growing politicisation of the universities. "Saddam was scared that academics, as open-minded people, would oppose his regime," he says. "He knew that if there was a generation of students who grew up against Ba'athist ideas they would present a danger to his existence and the party in the future."
So Ba'athist students were recruited as informants, academics and students were forced to join the militia, and critics of the regime were imprisoned or dismissed from the universities. The result was a rigidly centralised academic structure where political loyalty rather than academic achievement was the route to success.
Worse was to come. Following the Gulf War, Iraqi academics were cut off from the outside world by the embargo and government censorship. "After 1991 the process of degeneration really started," says Professor Amin. "Almost no one was able to leave Iraq and we were not welcome in Western countries. There was very strong censorship, and no access to international journals. All science became local research." With no new equipment, and the only access to international journals through sporadic smuggling, the academic community stagnated.
The British Council's aim is to try and help break this isolation. "We're working to reconnect Iraq with the international educational community," says Jordan. It has set up four "learning resource centres" in Baghdad and Basra, with internet access to international journals.
Security worries make doing anything more in Iraq itself almost impossible, so most of the work is being done back in the UK. An increasing number of postgraduate students are being brought over on scholarships, including 13 directly funded by the British Council, and academics are being offered research sabbaticals in the UK.
As well as reintegrating Iraqi academics in this way, some universities are also organising and often paying for training courses for academic administrators on how to adopt British management practices and how to move away from the stranglehold of the centralised system.
Twenty six universities came together last year to form the British Universities Iraq Consortium (BUIC) to manage cooperation between universities in Britain and Iraq. Their chairman, Dr Nick Worthington, the head of Exeter's international office, explains.
"We wanted to see what we could do to help the parlous state of higher education in that country. Iraq used to have the best academic reputation in the region and there's a very strong affection between British and Iraqi universities."
Worthington envisages a future where the BUIC will act as a one-stop shop for Iraqis who want to study in the UK, but, at present, almost everything going on is being developed by the member universities themselves.
Amid some noble talk of the global academic community, there is also a canny business incentive. "We see this as being very lucrative in the future," says Professor Dlawer Ala'aldeen at Nottingham University, a BUIC member. "There are tens of thousands of students in Iraq, and many want to study in Britain. As Iraq's finances and security get better they will be able to pay their own fees. This is an investment. We don't expect it to change overnight, but the future is much brighter than it looks." Already students coming in from the Kurdish north have three quarters of their expenses paid by the regional government. By getting in early, Nottingham hopes to establish its brand in the Iraqi market.
Nazar Amin went on one of Nottingham's management courses last year. "I found it very useful," he says. "It was the first time we have been allowed intimate contact with British universities, to look at how British universities were run, and how we could apply at least some of these ideas in our situation."
Since attending the conference Professor Amin has been trying to persuade the Iraqi government to open a Nottingham University campus, like the ones in Malaysia and China, in northern Iraq.
For other Iraqi academics it has been more of a reunion than a first contact. "Dr Mahmmod", a chemistry professor at Mosul University, first studied at Birmingham University, another of BUIC's leading lights, as a PhD student in the Seventies, when thousands of Iraqi students were at work in Britain. He is now back visiting on a year's research sabbatical. "Of course it's useful to spend time here, it's much better to learn in the West," he says. "I'm learning some new techniques that aren't available back at home, so I can start a new line of research when I go back to Iraq."
But useful as they are, for him and many other Iraqi academics, the scholarships and conferences are simply not enough. "Only a few people can come to the West. What about the others?" he asks. "In Iraq we are in urgent need of scientific instruments. We have no scientific equipment, because of the embargo, the bombing, and looting and yet there have only been a few replacements." And, of course, there are other problems. While Professor Amin works in the relative safety of Sulaimani, deep in the Kurdish north, "Dr Mahmmod" has been living on the frontline of the insurgency in Mosul. "Dr Mahmmod" is not his real name. He insists on using the pseudonym to protect against being attacked by insurgents as a collaborator.
"The British are trying to help," he says. "But as long as the resistance is going on Iraqis cannot collaborate with any Western institution: if they do the resistance will make them a target and kill them. As long as the situation remains like that I don't think there will be any progress."
'Saddam's officers stole our drugs to use as chemical-weapon antidotes'
Sherko Alim Omer, 42, an Iraqi student on a three-year PhD scholarship at Nottingham University
"I went to Baghdad university to study medicine in 1981. Even then you could not talk freely. The Baathist students would send in reports to the secret police. We lived in fear.
"One night after I graduated, I was working as a house officer in Sulaymaniyah. Security officers confiscated our apropine ampoules. We found out that they attacked Halabja two days later with chemical weapons. Apropine was the antidote.
"In 1989 I went back to Baghdad to do an MSc. Then there there was the war. Before 1990 conditions were OK - good compared with later. After 1992 there was little good equipment around, because of the embargo and the attitude of the government. We had to use photocopied textbooks.
"I went back to Sulaymaniyah in 1994. The university had been reopened in 1992 after 11 years and we had to start from scratch, so we paid people to smuggle articles in from Baghdad.
"The war in 2003 was quite a good time. Everyone was jubilant. I was only there for another year, but we were already making progress.
"I applied for a PhD scholarship at Nottingham University in microbiology and came over last year. It's totally different here. It's more advanced, and it's useful to see the different protocols and regimes.
"After I finish I'll go back to Sulaymaniyah. Molecular work is quite a new thing and we don't have this speciality. It will be useful to start this new field in our universities and implement some of the health benefits. We've been cut off for too long.Reuse content