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    Progress Against All Odds
    Universities in Afghanistan

    The Afghan university system faces some unenviable problems. In the near future the field of academic education will struggle to cope with the consequences of a huge rise in the country’s birth rate. Two-thirds of the Afghan population are under the age of twenty-five. This means that, every year, more and more schoolchildren are competing for places at institutions of higher education. Can the Afghan education system handle it?

    The development over recent years is as remarkable as it is problematic. In 2002, various sources registered a total of 8,000 students across the country. In 2009 the number was 62,000. By the end of 2013, it was around 120,000. We read that there are around 70,000 to 80,000 higher education places within the state system for an estimated 300,000 school leavers. Even if a degree of scepticism is called for when confronted with these kinds of figures in the context of Afghanistan, fair access to higher education and equal opportunities are already a growing challenge for the Afghan state.

    For example: every year, around the time of the concours – the written entrance exam for the state universities – there are the usual intrigues, bribery and greasing of palms. ‘There’s a tradition of fraud in the majority of faculties,’ says one Kabul lecturer. ‘The ministerial bureaucracy itself is involved. And there’s not much point in demanding equality of opportunity from a judiciary that’s not independent.’ Some accusations and complaints also end up on television and in the media. So far, this has not resolved the problem. There is great resistance at all levels. Insiders report that it is frequently wealthy or influential families who succeed in shoehorning their children onto medicine or engineering courses in this way, even when there are others who have better results.

    Three-tier education

    From a student’s point of view, the landscape of Afghan higher education is degenerating into a three-tier society. The small social group that manages to snare the lucrative foreign scholarships to study in Europe, the US or Australia has the best chance. Since 2002, for example, the German Academic Exchange Service’s ‘Afghanistan Stability Pact’, financed by the German Foreign Office, has enabled numerous scholars to study for a master’s degree or a Ph.D. in Germany. The idea is that the returning scholars will become lecturers and teachers, form the nucleus of newly-equipped faculties, and raise them up to an international academic level. All scholars must, incidentally, sign a statement that they will return to their homeland on finishing their studies. In the past, not all of them have done so.

    The second group are those students who win a place at one of Afghanistan’s 26 state universities. The syllabus and administration are often outdated, the equipment rudimentary by international standards, and the establishments run in a spirit that is sometimes reminiscent of a disciplinary institution: but a place at a state university does still open doors, if only to further studies in neighbouring India or Pakistan.

    The third group – the estimated 50,000 to 70,000 young men and women who fail the concours, or who are defeated by the system – can resort to one of around 75 private universities. Over the past six years these institutes have been shooting up like mushrooms. Competition among them is fierce. They do not receive state funding, and all are vying for the students’ – or their parents’ – favour and money, placing conspicuous billboards on Kabul’s main squares and banners on Internet websites. This has had consequences that one is tempted to describe as typically Afghan. Successful Afghan businessmen have, for example, founded institutes of higher education – but political agents, including governors, converted warlords and even former Taliban have also got involved. All of these are included among the founders or co-founders of new private institutes. In this way they hope to be able to exert long-term influence over Afghan society and its youth. The strictly conservative, Saudi-friendly Mujaheddin leader Abdul Salam Sayyaf has given more than just the name to Dawat University, while Ariya private university is seen as belonging to Mazar’s governor Atta Noor – and these are just two examples of many.

    Profit over entrance exams

    The crux of the private universities: ‘There are no entrance exams. This means that all students are accepted. But that way the standard doesn’t go up – it remains consistently low,’ criticises Ali Amiri, a lecturer and co-founder of Ibn Sina private university in Kabul. Over the past two years, he says, the number of students there has risen from 400 to 1,400 – at least a third of whom are women. ‘The university makes around one million US dollars a year from study fees alone,’ Amiri calculates. The institution wants to use this income over the next decade to buy land and build a bigger campus outside the city gates. Other private universities are seeking more short-term profits, which seems to be symptomatic of the unbridled capitalism that characterises the Afghan economy.

    In the midst of all this new academic confusion, one university seems to be in a league of its own: the American University of Kabul, established and supported by powerful associations, from the government to US universities to well-off individuals. The fees, in US dollars, for one year of study are well into the realms of four figures. Only a few of the new Kabul and Afghan elite can afford this, which is why the university is seen as a forge for the careers of the children of government ministers and ministerial officials.

    The private universities may have one advantage: this is where you will find relatively young and flexible staff, such as dedicated young women working as lecturers on freelance contracts. Some have studied at elite universities in the US and Europe; they prefer to work outside the old government-run structures, and are well-connected.

    Not without optimism

    ‘At the state universities, it’s not unusual for older lecturers to block the transition into the new era. Some of them refuse to make way for the next generation, even though they were officially pensioned off years ago and the younger lecturers are better qualified,’ observes Niamatullah Ibrahimi. Nonetheless, it seems that the young generation is not giving up. ‘In our faculty in Kabul in 2002, only around ten percent of the lecturers used to have a Master’s degree. Now it’s around eighty percent,’ one former overseas scholar comments optimistically. He reels off a list: more and better English textbooks, a well-appointed lab, new microscopes and 36 teaching staff. The faculty is changing. And those who don’t land one of the coveted foreign scholarships for Europe, Australia or the United States turn their attention instead to Afghanistan’s neighbours: India, Pakistan, or Tajikistan. ‘Several Kabul University lecturers are there at the moment doing their Master’s degrees,’ says a member of staff at the Faculty of Fine Arts. The tuition is affordable, he explains; visas are easy to obtain, and performance standards are not too high. And they speak Persian there, too.

    It is as so often in Afghanistan: there’s more than one way of looking at things. What the system really needs is an immediate, fundamental reform. Yet at the same time things are starting to move forwards, sometimes quite substantially, despite all warnings to the contrary.

    Martin Gerner is a freelance journalist and filmmaker with a focus on Afghanistan. He lives in Cologne.

    Translated by Charlotte Collins

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    June 2014

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