Student dies in stampede for university exam form

Aspiring female students rushing to obtain application forms for this year’s Afghan university entrance exam, known as the Kankor, resulted in a stampede that left one dead and more than 20 injured last week in Afghanistan’s northern Balkh province, bordering with Uzbekistan.

The event marred the run up to the exam, with women determined to aim for higher education despite a dire security situation, with war persisting in many parts of the country. Higher education for women is still confined to a few major urban centres such as the capital, Kabul, and cities such as Mazar-e-Sharif – a provincial capital and Afghanistan’s third-largest city.

In a bid to gain access to the annual exam for entrance to a public university, Zuhra Ali, a young and aspiring high-school graduate from Mazar-e-Sharif, was among a crowd of thousands of girls gathered at the Fatima Balkhi High School in the city on 3 June when she lost her life.

Almost all of the students were fasting for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which resulted in many fainting while waiting for hours under a scorching sun. Most were from the provincial capital, which is relatively peaceful, but some braved the journey to the city from faraway districts as well.

The tragedy was disheartening for many of the women, while others blasted the administration for the appalling state of the arrangements.

One of the woman students, Fareshta, told University World News that officials were treating applicants rudely and in a discriminatory manner. “The rich ones and those with contacts and power were getting the forms without any hassle while we, the poor girls, were made to wait for hours in a disorganised manner that led to this tragedy,” she said.

Afghanistan’s higher education ministry spokesman, Zia Sahel, told University World News the organisational responsibility for issuing the forms lay solely with the provincial administration.

“The Kankor team of the ministry of higher education had completed its task, and had asked the provincial police headquarters as well as the directorate of higher education in Balkh to arrange for the application forms, but their ‘negligence of duty’ led to this unfortunate incident,” he said.

Officials in Balkh are not taking any responsibility for the tragedy. Instead they were engaged in a blame game. Sibghatullah Mustaqim, head of the directorate of higher education in Balkh, told the local Ashna Radio the ministry had compelled them to issue the exam application forms to all aspiring students of the province at just one centre.

“We had selected three different centres for close to 14,000 students, but the Kankor team of the ministry of higher education compelled us to hold this process here in this one centre,” he said.

According to official figures, up to 300,000 students registered for the Kankor countrywide, to be held in phased sittings by next month. However, only half will succeed in getting places in public universities, which have inadequate seats for the numbers who qualify in the exam. Many students will have to enrol in relatively expensive private education or face tougher options.

Official figures suggest that in the past few years as many as 131 private higher education institutions have emerged offering courses in 431 faculties and 990 departments.

Seats earmarked for women

In a much-welcomed move, the Afghan government last month announced it would earmark up to 7,000 additional seats for women in public sector universities across the country.

However, the UN children’s agency, UNICEF, noted that just one in three girls is currently attending school in Afghanistan.

"The ongoing conflict and worsening security situation across the country, combined with deeply ingrained poverty and discrimination against girls, have pushed the rate of out-of-school children up for the first time since 2002 levels," UNICEF said last week, releasing its Afghanistan country report, which does not bode well for the numbers progressing to higher education.

The report added that up to 85% of girls were not going to school in some of the worst-affected provinces, such as Kandahar, Helmand, Wardak, Paktika, Zabul and Uruzgan.