More scholarships for study abroad, science teaching in English

In an effort to train a highly skilled scientific workforce needed for economic development, war-torn Afghanistan has doubled its budget for overseas scholarships and will teach science courses in English instead of the two branches of Persian – Iranian Farsi and Afghan Dari – used in many universities.

These initiatives were announced by Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai at a three-day seminar titled “A National Call for Educational, Higher Educational, Vocational System Reform and Employment in Afghanistan”, held from 23-25 June.

The withdrawal of United States and other NATO troops from Afghanistan by 2014 poses a challenge for the country’s universities to produce graduates to help rebuild the economy after more than three decades of near-continuous war.

“We allocated US$5 million last year for students to study in foreign countries but the government has allocated $10 million this year and the allowance will rise to $15 million in the coming years,” Karzai said.

In 2011 more than 500 Afghan students went to study at higher education institutions in India and Turkey and up to 1,000 students are expected to go overseas this year, officials said.

This is the second batch of students studying abroad on government scholarships – in previous years, study abroad was on scholarships from host countries.

Karzai said that the language issue had been discussed with the ministries of education and higher studies, and they agreed to implement medical and engineering classes at universities in English.

He said lack of access to books and educational material was a major reason for and barrier to economic development in Afghanistan. Students, he added, would be provided with more materials and books once classes in English began at universities.

Karzai also invited foreign institutions to come to Afghanistan and help fund its faculties.

“If France wants they can take over our medical university to teach. They can even bring teachers, books and teach in French. If Germany wants to take over our engineering faculty we will be very happy,” he said.

Mohibullah Halimi, director general of animal health and production in Afghanistan’s ministry of agriculture, irrigation and livestock, cautiously welcomed the new moves. “I support this idea and initiative,” he told University World News.

“Reform is needed to recruit qualified experts, as previous teachers left the university due to low salaries and faculties have changed to family recruitment, whether or not he has completed the requirement to be a teacher at university,” Halimi added.

Asked about other areas the government could focus on to speed up reform, Halimi said a baseline survey should be conducted to identify problems, with a special focus on curriculum updating. “Since the war started, everyone has changed the curriculum based on their wishes.”

Also, many deans had been “sustained for very long time. This needs immediate change.”

Regarding use of English, Muhammad Sahimi, an Iranian professor of chemical engineer at the University of Southern California, told University World News: “I am opposed to the idea of teaching in English, based on my experience in Iran.

“People should get education in their native tongue. The text could be in English, but the teaching itself must be in the native language.”

While the ability to read in a foreign language was a must in the 21st century, not everybody needed to learn to speak in English, which would be the case if the education system turned to English. “But the most important reason I am opposed to the idea is that language is an inseparable part of our national identity, culture and history."

However, Davood Rahni, a professor of chemistry at US-based Pace University, argued that just as Arabic was once the language of science, followed by others, “we must admit that English is the current language of science and engineering.

“So mastering the English language, at least for reading and writing scientific manuscripts and books, is crucial for the modernisation and not Westernisation of eastern nations,” Rahni concluded.

Christina Gitsaki, associate academic dean of English at the Higher Colleges of Technology in the United Arab Emirates and executive treasurer of the International Association of Applied Linguistics, said: “It makes sense to study science in English as there is a wider range of scholarly journals and science research reports in English than in any other language.

“If Afghanistan is aiming to become a world player in the field of scientific research and development, then using English as a medium of instruction and academic scientific dialogue is a step in the right direction,” she told University World News.