Government moves to approve private university degrees

The Afghan government has taken more than a decade to approve the issuing of degree and diploma certificates to thousands of students at private universities who failed to get a place in public sector institutions. The first ‘authenticated’ private university diplomas were handed out on 11 February, according to the ministry of education.

Earlier this month, Higher Education Minister Khawja Najibullah Omeri announced the long-awaited decision to finally issue approved degrees and diplomas to private university students, putting their qualifications on a par with those from the public sector, which has an insufficient number of places to cater for growing demand.

The first such degrees were handed to some 465 graduates at Kardan University, Kabul, 106 of them MBA students. Kardan was one of the first private universities in Afghanistan, set up in 2003. In previous years students graduated but could not receive diplomas as the government had not allowed the issuing of certificates.

Mohammad Amir Kamawal, chief of private universities in the ministry of higher education, said the ministry had delivered on its promise of not differentiating between private and government universities, Afghanistan’s Pajhwok Afghan News reported last week.

Private higher education boom

The fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, combined with heavy foreign engagement and the rapid penetration of the internet in Afghanistan, has led to a boom in private education centres. In the capital Kabul, young Afghans, boys and girls, are often seen queuing up for a variety of courses offered by newly emerged universities, language centres and technical training institutions.

Official figures suggest as many as 131 private higher education institutions have emerged in recent years offering courses in 431 faculties and 990 departments. This compares to some 36 public universities and institutes of higher education across the country.

Some 555,266 students were enrolled in private higher education institutions during 2017, according to ministry figures.

Despite being a poor and war-ravaged country, Afghanistan provides free higher education at public universities. But more than 50% of high school graduates fail to make it into public universities because of a lack of places.

With state institutions struggling to cope with increasing demand, the private universities have filled a gap for the growing number of students gaining the marks required from the ‘Kankor’ university admission test to study for subjects like medicine and engineering that require high marks. Private universities have emerged in major urban centres, including the cities of Kabul, Jalalabad, Herat, Mazar-i-Sharif and Kandahar.

But students have to pay approximately AFN7,000 (US$100) a month at private institutions and their degrees until now were not recognised as being on a par with those from public universities.

Outdated system

Sediq Patman, an academic and Afghanistan’s former deputy minister for education, said students at private institutions felt let down by the state.

“The government is still pursuing an over 100-years-old academic system and the Kankor test itself is a 50-year-old outdated idea,” Patman told University World News, adding that the test was originally designed to deal with only 1,000 higher education candidates five decades ago, while now more than 300,000 take the test each year.

“We have seen that in many instances when students failed the Kankor test but later managed to get admission to private universities in ‘sensitive’ subjects such as medicine and engineering and ultimately were awarded degrees, [they] know very little or nothing about the ‘delicate’ matters of these subjects,” he claimed.

Nonetheless, he said, branding private university students as having "fake degrees" was more dangerous than having fewer university graduates.

According to ministry officials, the decision to ‘review to authenticate’ individuals’ private university degrees was taken after they received complaints that in a number of private universities, degrees have been sold and graduates did not even attend classes.

However, concerns remain regarding the quality of education offered by private institutions, with many professors, particularly outside the big cities, having little knowledge of their subject and, according to students, they are often hired because of their personal contacts rather than their knowledge.

Afghanistan’s ministry of higher education has already begun a review of the higher education curriculum to implement the same standards across the country, but has not carried out a review of quality in private institutions for the past few years.

In the public sector it is providing scholarships for lecturers to pursue postgraduate degrees to improve quality, but both the public and private sectors face a shortage of well-qualified lecturers. According to the World Bank, around 60% of lecturers in public universities hold only a bachelor degree. The Afghan government’s National Higher Education Strategic Plan 2016-2020 aims to require all university lecturers to have a masters degree by 2021.