News from Afghanistan: Higher Education Needs the Support of International Partners

A scholar from Afghanistan who is on the IIE Scholar Rescue Fund (SRF) fellowship sent the Institute the following piece about education in his country. For the last 60 years, it has been a see-saw ride for higher education in Afghanistan. However, the data proves that the news is not all bad. In fact, educational opportunities have increased, especially for girls and women.

But with international forces scheduled to leave the country soon, there is a battle that needs to remain: the fight for the rights of all citizens to receive quality education on all levels. In simple terms, the international donor community must prioritize support for education in Afghanistan. If that fails to happen the consequences will be dire. As an esteemed IIE-SRF scholar writes below, "Afghans remain hungry for learning and eager to improve themselves through higher education."

Let’s be sure to help.

Letter from an SRF Scholar, March 2013

Decades of war, civil unrest, internal conflicts and political instability in Afghanistan have destroyed the basic social service delivery mechanisms of the country. Education, and higher education in particular, was the most vulnerable social sector during the years of insecurity. The education of girls and women suffered the most. Historically, higher levels of learning have never received enough attention in Afghanistan. Institutions of higher learning started to take root in the second half of the 20th century, but progress was badly hampered by foreign aggression as well as infighting. Higher education institutions, already in a lamentable condition, only worsened under the Taliban’s brutal rejection of modernity and secular education.

When the Taliban came to power, Afghanistan had 14 institutions of higher education, but these were quickly reduced by half. The surviving institutions included Kabul University, the PolyTechnical Institute, Medical University—Kabul, Herat University, Nangarhar University, Kandahar University, and the Academy of Islamic Disciplines and Technology, with campuses in Herat and Jalalabad. These institutions were characterized by outdated syllabi, non-availability of books, virtual detachment from the educational institutions of other countries, lack of a supported educational and research environment, and lack of skilled teachers. These problems did not begin with the Taliban. They dated back to the earlier Mujahideen period. In sum, the higher education institutions of Afghanistan have not measured up to the standards of the institutions of neighboring countries, let alone international standards.

Education in Afghanistan includes K-12 education, which is supervised by the Ministry of Education, and higher education, which is supervised by the Ministry of Higher Education in Kabul. Since 2002, Afghanistan has been going through a nationwide rebuilding process, and, despite some setbacks due to the ongoing Taliban insurgency, the education sector is improving. Improvements have been most notable in the expanded opportunities for girls and women to attend classes. Despite the media reports about Afghanistan, which focus mostly on negative factors (including corruption and poor governance) there has been remarkable progress in several aspects of life, and in the education sector in particular. Since 2002 there has been a seven-fold increase in the enrolment of students, the recruitment and training of large numbers of university professors and teachers, and the construction of several thousand schools in all parts of the country.

Currently there are 8.2 million students, of whom 40 percent are girls, out of a population of 26 million. In 2001 there were only 800,000 students, and none of these were girls or women. In 2001 Afghanistan had 3,400 school buildings; today there are 16,000 school building across the country. In 2001 there were 20,000 teachers; today the number has increased to 200,000 with 60,000 female teachers. Prior to the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan had only three vocational and technical institutes, today there are 83. In 2001 there was only one teacher’s training college, today there are more than 83 teachers’ training colleges across Afghanistan. Despite these impressive statistics, however, higher education in present-day Afghanistan remains fragile, and hugely dependent upon foreign assistance, which is set to decline significantly over the coming years. The Afghan government’s own resources remain small and insufficient to sustain or extend these past gains.

Also of concern is the fact that the system of higher education being promoted does not conform to international standards. Many schools and private universities have been launched with insufficient resources or professional oversight. Teacher training is not what it needs to be, and many schools still lack even the most basic supplies and equipment. While long-term peace is a prerequisite, there is an urgent need to deliberate upon the system of education, particularly at higher levels, and the foundations upon which it has to be established. It may also be noted here that the number of students gaining admission into higher education institutes is increasing every year as the number of graduates from secondary schools is growing. In 2004 only 4,000 students submitted their forms for higher education. In 2005 this number increased tenfold to 40,000. The number of applicants reached 52,000 in 2006, over 57,000 in 2007 and over 120,000 in 2012. Girls now occupy 25 percent of the slots in public universities, and these numbers increase yearly. There are now 52 newly-established private universities across the country. While some of these have tried to set higher standards, many still function far below international norms.

What is clear from these statistics is that Afghans remain hungry for learning and eager to improve themselves through higher education. Years of denial have left girls and women especially keen to achieve greater status through education and move into the professional world. These rising trends in what remains a very youthful society will see as many as one million students applying for limited seats in institutions of higher learning within a few years. Meeting these demands remains one of the government’s most critical challenges. According to the ten-year strategic plan developed by the Ministry of Higher Education, existing institutions have the capacity to accommodate no more than 150,000 students, leaving as many as 85 percent of applicants unable to attend. This deficiency has important economic, social and political implications.

Afghanistan’s education system desperately needs to produce a new generation of professional workers for the government and for the private sector who can lead the country into a more hopeful future. Despite impressive achievements, immense challenges lie ahead. Dedicated Afghans need to be able to prepare themselves at the international level in order to assist the process at home. Shortages of competent teachers, appropriate syllabi, textbooks, and the lack of professional connections to international educational institutions will continue to limit progress for many years. Afghan teachers will continue to need support in the form of scholarships if they are to operate at the necessary level. Schools will have to develop indigenous research centers and libraries and laboratories to ensure that students can know what they need to know after devoting several years to “advanced” studies. A tragedy of the past decades is that too many Afghans don’t even know what they don’t know. A new generation of leaders must lead the way to a better future.

Undoubtedly, developing institutions in a country like Afghanistan where war has been a continuous way of life for years on end is an uphill task. Yet the importance of education in general, and higher education in particular, demands complete mobilization of government machinery and international support. We must invest in the future generations if we are to overcome the sadness of Afghanistan’s recent past. Well-educated Afghan leaders can develop the riches of the Afghan land, including the vast mineral and agricultural resources, and can help develop our transportation and communication networks so that we play a positive role throughout the larger region. Every step we take provides visions of hope for the future. Hope is what we most need. The support of friends and allies in the international community today will pay dividends in the future in terms of a safer world.