Afghans throng ‘reformed’ university entrance exams

Afghanistan’s landmark 'Kankor' university entrance examinations have begun in the capital Kabul, with hundreds of thousands of aspiring students aiming to make it into public sector universities for free higher education in the war-ravaged country.

This year a new system is in place to provide more opportunities for students from deprived and insecure areas by reserving a proportion of university seats for those from within these areas.

The country’s university entrance examination regulating body said relative peace meant it was under immense pressure from an ever-growing number of students. Abdul Qadir Khamoush, head of the department for Kankor at the Ministry of Higher Education, said: “In the capital Kabul alone, we had an estimated 50,000 applicants, including around 20,000 girls seeking access to higher education in public universities across the country.”

Nationwide, this figure soars to over 200,000, with some 70,000 women. Public universities absorb a little over 50% of these students, while the rest either opt for private universities or are left without places.

Khamoush told University World News the examination process across the country takes up to two months to complete.

The Kankor management board has introduced a robust quota system this time around, aimed at just and equal representation from all parts of the country – particularly from the insecure countryside that has been lagging behind in terms of high education due to the raging Taliban insurgency there. Now a quarter of seats in public universities in insecure provinces are earmarked for students from within those provinces.

Explaining the new quota policy, Khamoush said the country’s 34 provinces are carefully divided into eight zones of regional competition in a bid to nurture local talent, particularly in deprived areas. Only those who top the exams within their respective zone will secure the available seats in that zone. He added that a separate competition has been arranged for girls for 21 different subjects.

Nevertheless, the recently introduced quota system remains controversial among some students in relatively peaceful urban centres who fear they might lose seats through this ‘unjustified’ mechanism to assist students from the countryside.

Fareed Ahmad from the country’s second biggest city, Herat, said: “Last year, we had 98 seats reserved for faculties of law but this year it has fallen. Similarly, we had 60 seats reserved for the faculty of economics and 40 for engineering, but these have fallen to 40 and 28 [respectively],” he said.

There are even charges of politicisation and discrimination levelled against the higher education ministry, which some say favours certain groups and constituencies for political gain. However, officials vehemently reject this.

Justice delivered late

Others are celebrating this move as justice, though delivered late.

Nisar Ahmad from the restive southern Kandahar province said the ministry’s move to bring in reforms at regional level would help nurture local talent in previously disadvantaged areas. “Many parts of Afghanistan have long been neglected and they are faced with grim challenges in key sectors such as medicine, engineering, economy and law. This policy would help support students in such previously deprived areas.”

But there is consensus among students on the transparency and proper management of the Kankor examinations this time round.

This mammoth exercise has often been criticised for technical glitches, logistical issues as well as alleged manipulation of the results. However, Khamoush said drastic measures, such as biometric registration of applicants a week in advance at students’ respective high schools as well as a robust social media awareness campaign, have been launched in order to conduct the exams smoothly.

Last year, defying stereotypes and impediments, a young Afghan girl from the capital Kabul topped the nationwide university entrance exams. Tehmeena Painda, female student of a private school in Kabul, was ahead of over 150,000 candidates – male and female – to secure the top slot with 353 out of 360 marks.

This comes as the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has warned that education is under fire in Afghanistan, with close to 200 schools attacked last year alone. UNICEF’s annual report last month said attacks on schools in Afghanistan had tripled between 2017 and 2018, surging from 68 to 192.