HE aid programmes and HE progress at risk under Taliban

All donor-funded higher education support initiatives, bilateral support agreements for higher education and international scholarships for university students in Afghanistan are at risk and many foreign aid payments have been halted following the Taliban’s take-over of the country.

The installation of a cabinet of mullahs – religious scholars – has added to the uncertainty over the future of efforts to support and promote higher education in Afghanistan, which have spanned over two decades.

Many donors say its direction will be set by the way the Taliban treat higher education, particularly women’s access to university education.

It will also depend on how other countries respond to the legitimacy of Taliban rule in Afghanistan and also on how local dissident factions respond to the new government, which they anticipate will not be broad-based and inclusive.

Zafar Nawaz Jaspal, professor of international relations at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan, said: “It is very clear that the reconstruction efforts of the last 20 years in Afghanistan will be severely hit and the world’s support to higher education in the country will also bear the brunt of this sudden change in the regime, the legitimacy of which is unclear.”

Many organisations, universities, charities and professional bodies around the world have pledged support to Afghan scholars and higher education professionals who have escaped Taliban rule and landed in other countries via the massive evacuation effort facilitated mainly by the United States, the United Kingdom and allies, but support for individuals cannot be compared with the need for support to transform the higher education system, experts say.

Jaspal told University World News that support to universities in Afghanistan should be carried forward through international agencies despite Taliban rule, but he feared current programmes for university reforms might face a shortage of financial resources as many partners in Afghanistan’s post-2001 reconstruction might drop their backing.

“In this situation, it is feared that the gains of the past two decades of transforming higher education in Afghanistan face the risk of reversal,” he said.

Farhat Asif, president of the Islamabad-based Institute of Peace and Diplomatic Studies, told University World News: “The evacuations of professionals have already caused a severe blow to higher education in Afghanistan. New aid, except for emergency humanitarian support, is not expected to come into Afghanistan unless there is a legitimate government which is recognised by the world. Until that time, the future of higher education in Afghanistan is unclear.”

She said: “Many Afghan university students, higher education professionals and scholars have fled the country and still a large number of scholars are vying to escape Taliban rule. This reflects a lack of trust in Taliban government given the history of its previous regime, known for curtailment of freedoms, restrictions on women’s education, particularly the banning of female higher education.”

Although the European Union, the UK and some other countries have pledged humanitarian and emergency response aid after the Taliban take-over, it is unclear whether the world will continue supporting higher education under Taliban rule.

The Taliban has announced its interim government and declared Afghanistan an Islamic Emirate. The 33-member government, announced on 7 September and comprising only Taliban clerics, does not include any women, a factor that has drawn widespread criticism, including from the European Union, which accused the Taliban of having backtracked from an announcement to make the government in Afghanistan inclusive and representative.

Farhat said: “A non-inclusive government by the Taliban, having no women’s representation, will likely lead to disapproval by donors and partners who worked for the improvement of higher education in Afghanistan in the past 20 years.”

She said: “A likely cut to development aid to Afghanistan and possible disengagement of international higher education partners, due to rights infringements, will badly affect women’s participation at the higher education level. It will possibly lead to reversing the gains achieved in the past decade.”

End of support to higher education in sight

Already many European countries and the European Union have halted development assistance, citing concerns about the legitimacy of Taliban rule, and women’s and minority rights.

“No payments are going on to Afghanistan right now. No payments of development assistance until we clarify the situation,” said Josep Borrell, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, according to CNBC.

The International Monetary Fund has also withheld its financial programme for Afghanistan, and the US Biden administration has frozen nearly US$7 billion of Afghanistan reserves held in the US.

The World Bank announced it would halt its development programmes in Afghanistan, citing concerns about the future prospects of development projects.

A World Bank spokesperson was reported by the BBC on 25 August as saying: “We will continue to consult closely with the international community and development partners. Together with our partners, we are exploring ways we can remain engaged to preserve hard-won development gains and continue to support the people of Afghanistan.”

Although the Taliban claims it will be different compared to its previous rule and has announced that it will allow women to acquire any level of education including access to higher education, nonetheless restrictions on women are increasing – including recently imposed gender-based segregation and face-covering decrees for female university students.

A 3 September UK Aid briefing document by Philip Loft and Claire Mills states: “Both the UK and US have said they would not accept the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan if it took power by force and fails to uphold the basic rights of Afghans, including women and girls.”

According to this report, since 2001 around US$65 billion in aid has been provided to Afghanistan, including £3.5 billion (US$4.8 billion) from the UK, which makes up 8% of the total. The US has been the largest donor, providing 54% of this aid, including US$17 billion through USAID programmes. A significant portion of the world’s development funds over the past two decades was spent on higher education in Afghanistan.

Doubts over recognition of Taliban, posing threat to HE

The Taliban are due to announce a government in Afghanistan, but little is known about any dialogue to engage other stakeholders for an inclusive government.

At the first meeting on higher education after the appointment of Abdul Baqi Haqqani as Taliban’s caretaker higher education minister, held on 29 August, all participants were men, raising doubts about women’s rights.

Some have voiced the opinion that the Taliban has ‘changed’, but US General Mark Milley said on 2 September: “The Taliban in Afghanistan are ruthless and it is unclear if they will change,” according to a BBC report.

“Renewed pledges by dissident groups to fight the Taliban, pointing to future unrest; the freezing of Afghanistan’s assets held abroad after the Taliban take-over; a pause in multi-donor assistance programmes and less likelihood of an inclusive government in Afghanistan leading to legality and recognition issues will severely affect higher education in Afghanistan, possibly reversing the gains of the last two decades,” Farhat told University World News.

Fear of losing hard-earned higher education gains

Even after massive international support over the last two decades, higher education in Afghanistan still needs foreign assistance. Higher education plays an important role in the country’s development.

Under the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund’s latest partnership programme, US$100 million was pledged for 2021-24 for higher education in Afghanistan, but now this future funding is uncertain.

“All the progress will collapse and achievements will be reversed if world support to higher education in Afghanistan is abandoned,” Babar Shah, head of the department of regional studies of Pakistan’s University of Peshawar, told University World News.

The total number of students in higher education in Afghanistan was fewer than 8,000 in 2001, the year the previous Taliban government was overthrown by US-led forces. With 10 years of international support to Afghanistan’s higher education, the university enrolments rose to 154,000 students by 2014. Some 20% of enrolled students were females.

After the 2004 elections and with the introduction of a new constitution, the new government in Afghanistan received substantial funding from international donors for reconstruction. Higher education reforms, including support to universities, was among the priority areas of the Afghanistan National Development Strategy, first developed for the period 2002-08.

It envisioned raising female access to higher education to at least 35% of total university enrolments. The strategy document stated: “We need to produce graduates who will stay in Afghanistan and help us to develop.” The recent exodus of scholars from Afghanistan has dealt a severe blow to this goal.

The strategy noted: “There is a limited supply of qualified faculty, including professors and doctors, as well as a lack of adequate teaching and learning materials. Proper research facilities are not available. Government cannot fund or manage the significant investment required in higher education on its own.”

In response to the Afghan government’s call for external support to fulfil the strategy’s objectives, the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF) was established. The multi-donor trust fund administered by the World Bank on behalf of 34 donors has contributed more than US$12.3 billion since 2002 for post-war development in Afghanistan, with higher education among the top priority sectors.

The ARTF through its Partnership Framework and Financing Program played an important role in the reconstruction of Afghanistan’s higher education system as the partners realised the need for a major increase in the number of university graduates, as well as for a sharp increase in female graduates to promote gender equity and empowerment.

The World Bank project briefing note states: “Increased female enrolment in higher education is one of many achievements in securing women’s equality and empowerment in the past decade in Afghanistan.”

From 2005 to 2013, the World Bank and ARTF co-financed the Strengthening Higher Education Program for Afghanistan with US$44.1 million for staff training and modernising curricula. They also helped develop a five-year National Higher Education Strategic Plan.

According to the World Bank: “This project led to an increase in enrolment from 8,000 in 2001 to more than 100,000 by 2012 in government universities, and women’s enrolment in universities increased from zero in 2001 to 19,000 in government-funded institutes of higher education by the same year, which made up 19% of the total university enrolments.

“This also led to an increase in female faculty from zero in 2001 to 16% of the total faculty number and led to the establishment of 65 private institutions of higher education.”

With this support, the National Higher Education Strategic Plans (2010-15 and 2015-20) were developed by the Afghan ministry of higher education under which the Higher Education Development Project (HEDP) was devised and again funded by donors under ARTF to the tune of US$50 million.

The project helped higher education capacity-building through scholarships, training, support to research and promoted female enrolment in universities.

The HEDP website states that initiatives for female students in the past four years in public universities resulted in increasing the percentage of female students to 27% in 2019. The future of this project, which was to continue through 2022, is yet not clear after the Taliban take-over.

University World News contacted HEDP in Afghanistan, but officials did not respond to questions regarding the future of this project.

Many other agencies contributed to strengthening higher education in Afghanistan. In 2005 the US aid agency USAID established the Higher Education Project in collaboration with Afghanistan’s ministry of higher education, the Academy for Educational Development at Indiana University and the University of Massachusetts Amherst in the US, to prepare and implement institutional development plans for Afghan universities, including some 31 new undergraduate and graduate degree programmes.

Another five-year USAID University Support and Workforce Development Program supported Afghanistan’s ministry of higher education and established linkages to create employment opportunities for Afghan graduates.

The 11 partner universities under this USAID-funded programme, implemented from 2014-19, included Kabul University, Kabul Polytechnic University, Kabul Medical University, Shaheed Rabbani Education University, Nangarhar University, Herat University, Balkh University, Kandahar University, Kunduz University, Khost University and Jowzjan University.

Apart from international agencies and organisations such as the European Union, the UK’s Department for International Development which became part of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office in 2020, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or NATO, a large number of countries including Canada, Norway, Sweden, Germany, Australia, India and Pakistan extended bilateral cooperation to support higher education in Afghanistan in the past two decades.