A deplorable higher education system

The education system in Afghanistan is in a deplorable condition. The country has a 28% literacy rate which is substantially lower than its neighbouring countries where the rate for Pakistan is 37% and for Iran 80%.

More than three decades of war and infighting has affected Afghanistan’s infrastructure and caused higher education to suffer. However, since the collapse of the Taliban in 2001, former president Hamid Karzai’s administration has attempted to improve higher education with new institutions established and student enrolments increased considerably.

Yet little has been done to reform the education system to reflect the needs of Afghan society. Institutions with low student capacity, outdated curricula and a lack of qualified teachers are among the challenges facing the Ministry of Higher Education.

During the 1860s, Afghanistan was recovering from infighting and British colonisation attempts. During the reign of Amir Sher Ali Khan (1868-1879), Syed Jamaluddin Afghani, an Islamic scholar, assisted in modernising the education system, though no institution of higher education was established.

Prior to the 1860s, students were educated informally by religious leaders based on the teachings of the Quran in Madrasas – religious schools inside mosques. In 1919, Amir Amanullah Khan seized power and expanded the secular educational system in Afghanistan.

In particular, he encouraged women’s education and sought separation of mosque and state.

His reforms were met with strong protests from religious leaders who later supported the overthrow of his monarchy. During King Mohammed Zahir Shah’s reign (1933-1973) Afghanistan’s higher education expanded and Kabul University (established in 1946) was the first institution of higher education.

Between 1960 and 1979, most of Kabul University’s colleges established collaboration and exchange programmes with universities in other countries, including the US, Germany, France and Russia. Notably, during the 1960s the Fulbright and Afghanistan American Exchange programmes established exchange and study abroad schemes.

Politicalising the university

After implementation of the first constitution in 1964, political parties emerged and Kabul University became the epicentre of political activity. Political leaders started recruiting students for their own political agendas: Barak Karmal headed the university’s Communist party with its Marxist ideology and Burhanuddin Rabanithe led the university’s Youth Muslim Association (Gulbuddin Hakmatyar and Ahmad Shah Massoud were among the members).

But the two groups constantly confronted each other and, at an incident, Communist student Bareq Shafiyee penned a poem in praise of Lenin, the overthrow of “the capitalistic castle” and “centuries of slavery” and its replacement by a “government of the oppressed”. The poem outraged the local mullahs.

Nangarhar University, established in 1963, was also politicalised and most Pashtuns from the other side of the border in Pakistan were admitted to the university’s colleges of medicine and engineering. The Afghan government wanted to mobilise Pashtuns in Pakistan to fight for an independent state as “Pashtunistan – the land of Pashtuns.”

During Dr Mohammad Najibullah’s rule, 1986-1992, as the last president of the Russian-backed communist government in Afghanistan, government-run universities increased. The education system was modified to reflect communist ideology, more specifically diminishing the significance of religion. Additionally, Russians wanted to avoid western countries’ influence on Afghan education and the study of Marxist and Leninist philosophy became mandatory.

Higher education for Afghan refugees

Throughout the years of resistance against the Russians, many Afghans left the country. Educated and wealthy Afghans resettled in Europe, the US and Australia, while lower and middle class Afghans fled to the neighbouring countries of Iran and Pakistan. The majority of the 3.2 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan settled in refugee camps in the North-West Frontier Province, currently known as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

With direct financial assistance from the US and Arab countries, Pakistan established schools and institutions for the refugees mainly to promote radicalisation and military and political indoctrination. One example can be seen in the following excerpt:

“Between 1986 and 1992, USAID [United States Agency for International Development] underwrote the printing of explicitly violent Islamist textbooks for elementary school children in both the camps and Pashto border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The University of Nebraska Omaha oversaw this US$50 million contract with the Education Center for Afghanistan, a group jointly appointed by the seven Mujahideen organisations that the ISI [Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence] and CIA had taken under their wing.

“A fourth-grade mathematics text noted that ‘the speed of a Kalashnikov bullet is 800 metres per second’, and then asked students, ‘If a Russian is at a distance of 3,200 metres from a Mujahid and that Mujahid aims at the Russian’s head, calculate how many seconds it will take for the bullet to strike the Russian in the forehead’. The textbooks, designed by the centre and the university were published in Dari and Pashto under a USAID grant in the early 1980s.” (Mullen, RL. 2009. Johns Hopkins University, Policy Options for State-building in Afghanistan).

According to Mullen, more than 13 million textbooks were distributed to Afghan students from 1984-1992.

Rule of the Taliban

The Taliban gained control of the majority of Afghanistan in 1996 when the number of universities and students fell drastically. The Taliban used universities for their own political agenda – the college of law and Islamic studies at the Nangarhar University turned into Taliban training and recruitment centres.

Women were denied education and a new Islamic curriculum was introduced and implemented in all the country’s colleges, including colleges of engineering and medicine.

Technical subjects were replaced with Islamic subjects, such as the interpretation of the Quran, the study of Prophet Mohammad’s behaviour, etc and were taught by mullahs. Qualified teachers and personnel were replaced with unqualified ones. For example, a second-year medical school student became academic vice-chancellor of Nangarhar University while he was studying.

Higher education since 2001

After September 11, 2001, the US toppled the Taliban government because of their harbouring of terrorist organisations such as Al Qaeda. Hamid Karzai was assigned the interim presidency in November 2001 and since then, higher education has been reformed and education institutions reopened to both men and women.

However, readjusting to life in Afghanistan remains a challenge for millions of Afghans from Iran and Pakistan. This is apparent in higher education where students who received schooling outside of the country, especially in Pakistan, were exposed to different curricula, agendas and objectives.

The contemporary education system and curricula do not accommodate the current needs of students and it is an ongoing challenge for Afghanistan to integrate returning students from neighbouring countries.

Recently efforts have been made to reform the education system but a better understanding of the problems the country faces is needed to make a significant and lasting impact. The government, since March 2002, has focused on “back-to-school campaign” efforts to demonstrate that student enrolments are on the rise instead of funnelling international aid towards revising the curricula and improving its contents.

Also, money was spent on expanding the distribution of the outdated textbooks published by the University of Nebraska Omaha with the aim of promoting violent imagery and holy war against Russians.

Capacity of universities

With Afghans returning to their homeland, the number of university applicants now greatly exceeds the capacity of the higher education institutions.

Student numbers jumped from 4,000 to 35,000 in 2003 when 8,000 applicants missed out. This number reached 17,000 in 2005 and the disparity between students accepted and denied has continued to grow substantially. In 2006, out of 50,000 applicants, just 20,000 were admitted, and in 2007, out of 60,000, only 22,000 students won a place.

The lack of qualified teachers is another major challenge for the Higher Education Ministry. In 2009, 5.8% of academic lecturers held PhDs, 80% of whom taught in the capital city of Kabul. Teachers with masters degrees constituted 37% and most were in Kabul.

About 58% of teaching academics only hold bachelor degrees and the majority obtained employment during the war years as a result of political and ideological affiliations with the people in power. Replacing these academics with those who are qualified will be a major challenge for the government.

Outdated curricula and syllabuses are another major hindrance to the quality of education. Even in the fields of medicine and engineering, lecturers depend on their notes from when they were students.

Although the number of public universities had increased to 26 by 2012 and many affiliations and pacts of collaboration had been formed between Afghan universities and those in India, Europe and the US, the education system still lacks curricula that meet the contemporary needs of its society. Higher education is highly centralised and designed as top-down with no flexibility to consider the specific needs of different communities and populations.

To support a long-term implementation strategy, the Higher Education Ministry should consider a bottom-up approach, with more input from district and local communities in order to make sound decisions. Furthermore, teachers with outdated teaching skills and those who have studied in Russia and Pakistan must be equipped with the skills and qualifications based on international norms and standards or be removed from higher education.

Dr Farid Saydee is LARC associate director and the director of the Afghan Language and Culture Programme at the Language Acquisition Resource Centre, or LARC, at San Diego State University, USA.