Reform of university entrance tests sparks controversy

The Afghan government’s landmark move to reform the decades-old public sector university entrance exam has been rejoiced by many but has worried others in the war-ravaged country.

For years, Afghans have been raising their voices for reforms – in their own perceived way – in the 20th century ‘Kankor’ public university entrance exams. Finally, when the government managed to break through the crippling bureaucratic system in the deeply divided nation to modify it, not all seemed content.

On a yearly basis, around 200,000 students undertake the ‘Kankor’ exam to compete for seats in the public sector universities across Afghanistan which provide free higher education. But, due to a lack of capacity in terms of staff and number of universities, close to 50% of students remain deprived of a place.

Inability to hold exams

On top of this, in this highly-centralised system, thousands of students from the restive rural parts are often dropped, due either to the tough competition from those in the relatively safer urban parts of the country with access to the means for a better education or because of the inability of the authorities to hold the entrance exams in the insecure parts of the country.

Against this backdrop, Faisal Ameen, spokesman for the Ministry of Higher Education, told University World News that 25% of seats in public universities in different insecure provinces have now been earmarked for those students in these restive parts who have always missed higher education opportunities in the past.

Faisal added that the general ‘Kankor’ exams would be conducted nationwide, just like in the past years; however, for 25% of seats at the regional level in the fields of medicine, engineering, law, economics, agriculture and information technology, the exams would be held separately.

“There are many provinces in Afghanistan that still don’t have a single female doctor, not a single civil engineer, so to ensure equal opportunities for development we have paved the way for them,” he said.

Anger over ‘division’

This move has, however, angered those claiming such ‘division’ in the academic system would lead to negative growth, and would hinder the path of bright students.

The move has been approved by the cabinet of ministers as well.

But a number of parliamentarians want this policy to be rolled back. During a recent session of the Wolesi Jirga (lower house), MP Arif Rehmani said such moves are bound to further lower the quality of education and deprive the brightest students of their fair share of seats. “Those demanding a quota system in ‘Kankor’ should instead strive to develop learning centres at the secondary level to promote education in restive areas,” he suggested.

Support for equal opportunities

However, Nader Khan Katawazi, a Sayed Jamaluddin Teacher Training Institute graduate, cited the example of his home province, Paktika, with some 500,000 inhabitants, where not a single female doctor exists – as a classic example of deprived places needing support in terms of equal opportunities.

“Instead of further fuelling the war and illiteracy by denying the war-affected population a chance to get educated, we must all strive hard to put an end to the war that is causing all the troubles in the first place,” he told University World News.

On top of this, the ministry of higher education has promised to organise additional training for the students of restive and deprived areas in a bid to nurture local expertise in medicine, engineering, law, political science, economy and business administration and agriculture at the local level all over Afghanistan.

In the latest ‘Kankor’ exams held in summer this year, a young girl from the capital Kabul came top, making a strong statement about girl power in the conflict-affected country. Tehmeena Painda, a female student of a private school in Kabul, outperformed more than 150,000 candidates – boys and girls – to secure the top slot, with 353 out of 360 marks for the public university entrance exam.