Demand for institution to be upgraded to university

A leading public sector teacher training institute in Afghanistan has remained in lockdown for nearly two months over demands by students and teachers that it be upgraded to a university to provide better job opportunities for its graduates, higher salaries for faculty members, and enhance the recognition of their credentials in a difficult job market.

One of the country’s oldest academic institutions, the Syed Jamaluddin Afghan (SJA) Teacher Training Institute – named after the 19th century political activist and Islamic ideologist who was active in the Middle East, South Asia and Europe – was established some 99 years ago in the capital, Kabul. After many years of war and destruction in Afghanistan, it was renovated in 2006 with international aid funds.

“The upgrading of the Syed Jamaluddin Afghan Teacher Training Institute to the level of a university actually means upgrading the whole education system of the country as it would mean better educated and trained teachers for the younger generations,” SJA institute faculty member Maryam Bahar told University World News.

The protest kicked off in early May amid rumours the government was planning to downgrade the institute to a centre for short-term courses, spreading panic among teachers and students alike.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Education, Mujib Mehrdad, denied any such plans, but concerns remained, with academic activities halted and protesters camped inside the campus grounds.

The idea of providing only short courses is still circulating in official quarters, according to Bahar who insisted: “We would resist this.”

However, the Ministry of Higher Education fears an upgrade to university level would open the floodgates for hundreds of similar institutions nationwide to make the same demands, creating a shortage of places to train for teaching posts.

Parliamentary statement

During a briefing last week to the Wolesi Jirga, Afghanistan’s lower house of parliament, Higher Education Minister Najibullah Khwaja Omari revealed his opposition to the SJA protesters’ demands. He stressed that currently up to 17,000 students graduate annually from teacher training facilities nationwide, but the Ministry of Education can only accommodate 10,000 in teaching posts in schools.

Upgrading the SJA institute to a university would unleash demands from other institutes and cause “chaos”, he said. Though the institutes cannot offer full-fledged masters degrees, he said in an apparent concession that the government was prepared to provide SJA students with a four-year graduation programme. Currently the institution offers only a two-year teaching certificate after high school.

A parliamentary committee has now been set up to work together with the relevant ministries, students and the presidential palace to chalk out a legal and technical solution.

This did not impress the agitating students. One protestor, Khalid Khan, asserted that the relevant Afghan officials should have a more progressive and positive attitude, and should not limit the horizons of students due to a fear of scarce job opportunities in the future.

“There are already thousands of vacant seats in the education sector; they [officials] should not worry too much about that now,” he said.

This comes as the country’s Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission (IARCSC) has begun job tests for fifth and sixth grade posts in schools. According to the IARCSC, some 30,000 candidates have applied for up to 3,000 posts in these grades. Last year, the IARCSC announced that up to 8,000 posts for teachers were vacant.