AFGHANISTAN: Rebuilding an education-starved country

The Afghanistan government and the international community have agreed to expand the nation's higher education sector to create jobs and meet projected requirements for skills in key sectors, such as mining, construction and engineering as well as agriculture. This was announced at a UN-backed international conference on Afghanistan held in The Hague on 31 March.

Nazar Mohammad Halim, of the faculty of science of Kabul University, welcomed the announcement, telling University World News: "The support of the international community for higher education reform should incorporate modern scientific knowledge and learning methods - but it must not overshadow the uniqueness of Afghanistan, its people, its history, its culture and tradition as well as its national needs."

Halim said there were complex and almost overwhelming pressing needs for Afghanistan to rebuild its higher education sector. There were critical shortages of professionals such as engineers, technicians, administrators, accountants, agriculturists, and business leaders to meet the needs of reconstruction and economic growth, as well as an urgent requirement for well-educated and trained leadership in all sectors of the economy.

According to Halim, the physical infrastructure of universities was grossly inadequate, basic computer facilities were lacking and the budget of higher education institutions was barely sufficient to cover salaries.

Higher education was low in quality because of an acute shortage of qualified academics. Many existing academics lacked sufficient credentials and expertise for their critical role in academia.

"In the large picture when a doctorate is deemed desirable for university faculty, at this time in Afghanistan only about 20% of all [academics] have doctorates out of which 2% are women," Halim said.

But dramatic progress had been made in recent years and momentum was building for change in higher education. A strategic plan for reforming higher education in the next decade was launched with the aim of improving management, facilitating educational access, and increasing financial support, as well as enhancing quality in higher education through faculty development, curriculum reform and quality assurance.

Under the reform plan, by the end 2010 student enrolments will have reached 100,000, with at least 35% of them female. Universities will have to be prepared to meet the demands of 1 million high school graduates by 2014.

The curriculum in public universities will be revised to meet the development needs of the country and private sector growth by incorporating recent knowledge in scientific and technical education, and the education of teachers into the higher education curriculum.

"Today as Afghanistan moves out of a crisis mode into forward-thinking and forward-building, the fruits are starting to appear on the tree of the higher education reform in the Afghanistan field," Halim said.

In an attempt to improve the level of education in universities, the salaries of teachers and professors were raised last month by 80-100%, depending on their qualifications. Salaries will range from US$300-US$800.

Nineteen higher education institutions have reopened their doors and enrolment has jumped from 4,000 students in 2001 to 37,000 in the autumn of 2007.

The government, for the first time, has encouraged the establishment of good-quality private higher education institutions with proper incentives and quality control mechanisms.The American University of Afghanistan established in 2006 and located in the Karte Se area of Kabul, is the nation's first private higher education institution. It offers three undergraduate degrees, as well as intensive English-language preparation courses and professional development training.

Opened in 2008 and located in Khost province, 200 kilometres from Kabul, Khost University, known as Shaikh Zayed University (SZU), was built at the cost of US$ 4.8 million from the United Arab Emirate's late President Shaikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan .

Among other offerings, SZU offers courses in medicine, engineering, agriculture and technology for about 3,000 students through its nine faculties. It is the only university in Afghanistan with a faculty in computer science.

Besides US$100 million university built by Iran, Iranian universities are also establishing branches in Afghanistan, including Payame Noor University, while the University of Ferdowsi, located in Mashhad is establishing a branch in Herat under the name of Khajeh Abdullah Ansari.

"These universities are good steps towards increasing capacity building and encouraging the return of Afghan scientists who migrated to Europe, the United States, and Pakistan during over decades of war," Halim said. "As well as assisting Afghanistan to re-emerge from decades of war and civil strife."