Dramatic rise in students, but universities can't cope
More than 60,000 students will attend the country's public universities when the new academic year begins next month, Afghanistan's Ministry of Higher Education said on 6 March. This compares to 40,000 a year ago, and around 15,000 three years ago.
Another 34,000 students will be enrolled in private universities, according to Masoud Turishtwal, a ministry official.
But there are far too few university places to meet growing student demand. Chronic under-capacity in the education sector is seen as hindering the country's development.
Afghanistan's higher education participation rate is among the lowest in the world, even compared to other post-conflict countries, with a gross enrolment ratio of around 5%, according to a 2013 World Bank report.
Higher Education Minister Obaidullah Obaid told donor countries and the World Bank at a meeting in Kabul last month that the ministry needed US$24 million to provide more university places, including expanding capacity in existing universities and creating new departments to teach subjects not generally available.
In 2012 public universities could only admit 25% of the 170,000 graduates who participated in the entrance exam known as the kankor. This year 254,000 took the exam in 34 provinces in December, January and February.
Some 94,000 or 37% will be able to get places in public and private universities.
Others may be able to obtain scholarships to universities in neighbouring Pakistan and in India. A few will attempt to gain admission next year, joining the scramble for places a second time, but many will simply have to abandon the idea of higher education.
Last December Obaid said in the Meshrano Jirga, or upper house of parliament, that he had spoken to private universities about absorbing some students without charging fees and offering fee discounts.
A mechanism for reducing fees had been reached. More than 33,000 students will be granted admission with discount and 400 others free education at private universities, according to records of Obaid's remarks to the Meshrano Jirga.
Afghanistan has some 82 private universities that educate one in three of the country's total of 200,000 students. Many opened less than five years ago, after Afghanistan began to allow private institutions in 2006.
But the quality of private institutions continues to be of concern.
"The Ministry of Higher Education is committed to improve the quality of education and enrol as [many high school] graduates in universities as possible. Hence, the private sector shall improve their teaching methodology in order to impart high quality education," the ministry's Turishtwal told the local Afghanistan Times on 6 March.
Turishtwal, who heads the private education institutions directorate in the ministry, said that in the first round of quality assurance investigations held recently, some 14 private universities were found not to be meeting criteria specified by the ministry and were asked to resolve the issues within two months or the government would not allow them to operate.
None of the universities assessed met the government's criteria for 'excellent'. Only 14 were considered good, with the majority only satisfactory.
As competition for places in public universities rises, the kankor itself has come under scrutiny.
Many students were unable to sit the tests due to military threats, with over 100 students - many of them girls - unable to take the kankor held in January in the north-western Faryab province, according to the Pajhwok Afghan news agency.
However some, 6,900 candidates were able to sit the test for Faryab University this year - more than 90% of school leavers in the region, 48% girls - compared to 3,600 in 2013, Governor Mohammadullah Tabish told Pajhwok.
In Charikar, in the central Parwan province, the exam due to be held in early February was postponed by the authorities due to 'bad weather', despite hundreds of applicants reaching the city from surrounding areas the day before, some of them spending the night in hotel accommodation, which they could ill afford.
In western Herat province the kankor was cancelled by the ministry, reportedly after an exam paper was leaked.
In central Logar province, hundreds of exam answer sheets were allegedly thrown into a canal after the examination. The head of a ministry delegation, Lutfulla Safi, told local media in late December that the exams had been "scrapped" and the papers did not need to be taken to Kabul.
The incident and other disruptions in Ghazni, Badakshan and Wardak provinces were criticised by the Afghanistan Universities' Professors Union at a press conference in Kabul in January.
They accused officials, parliamentarians and educators of "interference" in the exam and demanded an investigation into cheating and corrupt practices in the way it is conducted.
Too few women
Overall, women currently make up just 19% of university students, according to a recent World Bank report.
In Kabul, some 40% of the 10,000 students who sat the entrance exams on 17 February were girls. But in Kandahar city, where insecurity continues to hamper education, just 300 of the 2,230 students sitting the exams - just under 14% - were girls.