Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Complex Landscape of Higher Education in Afghanistan

by Salman Hameed

There is a nice piece by John Bohannon on Afghan universities in last week's issue of Science (you may need subscription to access the full article). Where do we even begin in a country that has been at war for over three decades, and where basic infrastructure is lacking outside its capitol and a few other cities. While it is a hopeful article, one can also see the challenges associated in building a good educational foundation:
In 2002, Afghanistan had 12 barely functioning universities; now it has 30, and they enroll roughly 100,000 students. Secondary education has enjoyed an even more impressive recovery, with the number of high school graduates increasing sevenfold since 2002.
In fact, that surge has overwhelmed the country's system of higher education. Admission to public universities is based on a nationally administered exam, and students pay no tuition. The Ministry of Higher Education projects that, without a significant increase in capacity, universities will be able to offer spots to only one in 10 students who apply in 2014. 
The anticipated leap in demand was one reason the government created AUAF as the country's only not-for-profit, private and independent university. The U.S. government is its main funder: The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has spent $200 million on higher education programs in Afghanistan since 2002, and half of its current tranche of $90 million for program funds is designated for AUAF. USAID Administrator Rajiv Shah calls the school a “best-in-class institutional partner” and says the university is intended to show “the value of true, high-quality higher education in helping societies grow and develop.” 
Okay - it is good to see US money going into educational projects. But it is the large public universities that can have a larger impact:

But while AUAF may ultimately train the elites, the vast majority of Afghans seeking higher education will find it in the public university system. And that system is creaking.
Only a 10-minute drive away, Kabul University represents the yin to AUAF's yang on the circle of Afghan higher education. Its leafy, walled-in campus serves as a quiet oasis in a city that struggles to provide even the most basic amenities—water, power, waste disposal—for its 5 million residents. Its 20,000 students make it by far the largest university in the country. 
Founded in 1931, Kabul University is also the country's most prestigious, and its science programs are bulging at the seams. “This is introductory physics,” says Mohammad Arif, a chemist and dean of the faculty of science, poking his head into a lecture hall. The sweltering, windowless hall, with hundreds of students crammed into every seat right up to the top wings, looks more like the setting for a rock concert than a physics class.
“We are at double capacity,” Arif says. Some 1500 students are pursuing science and math degrees in the departments under his watch. The total does not include applied science majors in the university's schools of engineering, agriculture, and medicine. 
But it is vital to keep the long history of Afghanistan in mind - and the fact that it has largely been part of the big game between other powers: 
The current situation is a far cry from the recent past, says the 62-year-old Arif, who has taught at Kabul for 2 decades. “In the days of the Taliban, it was normal to have only one or two students in our classes,” says Arif, a cosmopolitan intellectual who was forced to wear a beard and turban during their reign. And that era was only the latest insult to the country's system of higher education. 
Arif had just finished his Ph.D. in chemistry in Moscow in 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded his homeland. “That's when everything fell apart,” he says. The departure of Soviet troops in 1989 led to a civil war that subsided when the Taliban took over. “We just never recovered.”
It wasn't always so. During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union competed with each other to invest in Afghan higher education. “The early 1960s was a golden age,” says AUAF's Fayez. There were academic exchanges and research collaborations with U.S. universities such as Purdue University, the University of Wyoming, and the University of Nebraska, Omaha. Columbia University went a step further, building an institute in Kabul to train future teachers. Fayez was one of many Afghans in the program, which included a year in New York City. 
Not to be outdone, the Soviet Union invested heavily in science and engineering. It helped to build up Kabul's polytechnic universities, and by the 1970s Afghan academics were shuttling constantly between Moscow and Kabul. One reminder of that partnership is the fact that the older generation of Afghan scientists and engineers, like Arif, are just as likely to speak Russian as English. But the Soviet invasion soured that relationship. 
Nevertheless, the literacy rate has hovered around 20%. It is now up to 28%,  but there is still a long way to go. There are some positive signs now and I hope that the country see an end to the war at some point.


Eric William said...

Afghanistan is really reviving their country after everything that have happened to them. Their quality of education is pretty great to and the higher education always check their quality of teaching every now and then.

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