Mooted closure of the American University causes alarm

With Afghanistan’s premium American University fighting for survival amid a dire shortage of funds, the prospects of quality English-language higher education in the war-torn country are hanging in the balance.

The American University of Afghanistan’s association with the United States has meant that the educational facility in the heart of the capital Kabul has particularly been on the Taliban’s hit list and has had to survive the horrors of multiple terrorist attacks and abductions of its professors, but a looming cash-crunch could see its demise.

The American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) relies on the US Agency for International Development (USAID) for more than 60% of its budget and says it cannot operate without the agency’s financial backing. But, as US news channel CNN reported in late December, AUAF has been unable to secure assurances of continued funding and without them it fears losing key faculty members and eventual closure by May, when current USAID funding runs out.

The report stated that USAID bosses told the AUAF Board of Trustees on 9 December to diversify its funding sources for sustainability.

On Sunday 29 December, the university’s board chairman, David Sedney, in a statement affirmed the university’s dependence on US funding and noted that US government funding was necessarily increased in 2017 to allow for heightened security that enabled AUAF to reopen in March 2017, following the Taliban attack eight months earlier.

“As long as sustainable peace is still an aspirational goal, rather than a reality in Afghanistan, the need for funding to maintain a strong security environment will also remain a reality. I, along with the AUAF board and administration, am actively working to ensure that the funding for AUAF operations, security, academic programmes (including new programmes) is in place for 2020 and beyond,” Sedney said.

Oversight reports

However, in early 2019 USAID and the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) – a specialist US agency that provides independent oversight of Afghanistan reconstruction projects in regular reports to the US Congress – warned that the continued existence of the university was potentially at risk, arguing that the university graduated 1,281 Afghan students over the past decade, at a cost of US$126,000 each to American taxpayers, or a total of US$162 million.

Since then, the AUAF has remained the subject of an investigation as well as a forensic audit.

A SIGAR report released in April 2019 refers to a new “Administrative Agreement” executed in March 2019 which “gives the university an opportunity to demonstrate that it can be entrusted with additional US government funding”, after various audits since 2016 criticised the university’s financial reporting.

According to a New York Times report, on 29 March 2019 Sedney signed the agreement pledging to undertake substantial reforms in budgeting, management and oversight as a condition of future government funding. He has insisted no fraud or financial wrongdoing has taken place with regard to US funds for AUAF and that the university has fully accounted for all USAID money.

In an interview with Voice of America radio on 29 December, Sedney said: “We are working cooperatively and positively with the US government to get additional grants and we are optimistic on all fronts.

“Right now, the cost of educating our students is about US$25,000 a year, and the tuition we charge is about one-sixth of that. The difference is made up by the support of the US government and other sources.

“In the longer term, we are looking into an endowment that will generate income and that will allow us to continue to give over US$2 million financial aid that we give each year and keep the quality of education at the very top of the country.”

Dean of Faculty at AUAF Victoria Fontan said in December that the new faculty intakes for spring 2020 include four Afghan full-time faculty members out of six. “We are hiring more and more qualified Afghan faculty. We are not only educating the future leaders of Afghanistan but also contributing to the development of a new generation for incredible academics,” Fontan said.

As part of the US-led nation-building process for Afghanistan, the university was set up in 2006 in the heart of the capital to offer graduate and undergraduate programmes based on the American system.

With some 1,700 students, it is viewed as one of the country’s finest institutions of higher education, and the thought of closure has come as a shock to many young people in Kabul who see many of the institution’s alumni securing top government positions.

Shock reaction

“The American University [AUAF] has made the lives and careers of so many Afghans,” Eqbal, a young Kabul-based Afghan seeking higher education abroad who recently enrolled in the university’s English language programme, told University World News. “But like everything else in Afghanistan, nothing can be said for sure about its [AUAF’s] future with the complicated peace talks, the messy [US presidential] elections and this shortage of funds issue.”

The issue set social media alight in Afghanistan. Social media is dominated by young Afghans who, unlike their fellow country-mates in the rural areas, know the importance of the institution well, with #SaveAUAF trending in the wake of the CNN report. Some dubbed the possible closure as a “generational loss”.

A more prominent voice, Shaharzad Akbar, the female chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, said in a series of tweets that the AUAF remained a powerful reminder of hope, the potential of Afghan youth and their thirst for learning.

“The [proposed] shutdown is heartbreaking, not because it will shatter the dreams of so many young Afgs [Afghans], but also because it will signal indifference or despair. There are many private universities in Af [Afghanistan] but @AUAfghanistan draws some of the best talent.”

“Closing AUAF will not only deal a fatal blow to the careers of its students, it will also deepen Afghan mistrust of Americans and the United States,” said Ahmadullah Azadani, a member of the student government association at AUAF.

On social media a relatively small number speculated that the closure of AUAF might be part of some sort of ‘secret deal’ in the peace talks between the US and the Taliban, owing to the university’s alleged role, as seen by the Taliban, in ‘brain-washing and propaganda’ for the West in Afghanistan.

Some also criticised AUAF for being an ‘elitist’ institution for a limited few in a country of 35 million people.