US-AFGHANISTAN: Joining forces for university reform

In an effort to help Afghanistan implement its higher education strategic plan, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) has signed a one-year agreement with the University of Massachusetts Center for International Education to reform Afghani universities.

The USAID-UMass CIE agreement was signed in the middle of March, according to press reports.

Under the agreement, UMass CIE and partner Indiana University will provide assistance to 18 Afghani universities and bolster the capacity of the Ministry of Higher Education to lead policy and programme initiatives, strategic planning, budgeting, and management systems development to support implementation of the country's higher education plan.

Besides improving the quality of university teaching through faculty professional development, the agreement includes enhancing access to the internet and printed reference materials such as journals as well as strengthening two masters programms in English and Public Policy and Administration.

The agreement also includes support for e-learning, research skills and seminars through the management of 15 e-learning and professional development centres that provide staff and students with English language, computer and research methodology skills.

Nazar Mohammad Halim, of the faculty of science at Kabul University, welcomed the agreement. "Regional and international academic help that promotes the development of a knowledge-based Afghan society in this war-torn country is extremely important," he told University World News. Assistance was needed to tackle financial and technical difficulties facing higher education.

According to 6 March report in the Washington Post, all of Afghanistan's 22 public universities and institutes operate on a combined budget of US$35 million last year - about 1.5% of the government's core budget.

Additional funds come from outside the country, most notably through USAID, which asked this year for $20 million for Afghanistan's higher education sector out of $249 million to cover higher education projects worldwide. The greatest share of the request, $70 million, was for Pakistan.

Highlighting the financial as well as the policy problems facing Afghani higher education, Quadir Amiryar, a senior advisor to the ministry, was quoted as saying: "Security is a priority...Higher education is a luxury, given the configuration of the government.''

To help implement the USAID agreement, Kabul University's Halim called for a programme to encourage Afghani researchers living abroad to act as a link between international and national universities for knowledge and technology transfer.

The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan forced scientists and academics to find refuge abroad, causing a serious brain drain problem. Today a number of Afghani academics hold prominent positions in international universities. They include Mohammad Qayoumi, who has just been appointed President of San José State University.

"To successfully translate these type of partnerships on the ground, the Afghani government needs to put higher education and technological innovation at the heart of its strategic plans and the agreement must be based on a needs analysis as well as harnessing science, technology and innovation for economic development and social benefits," Halim concluded.

Related link

AFGHANISTAN: Rebuilding an education-starved country