American University of Afghanistan shifts campus to Qatar

The American University of Afghanistan (AUAF), which is currently unable to operate at its home campus in Kabul in Afghanistan, is to set up a campus in Doha, Qatar, after an agreement was signed last week between the university and the Doha Qatar Foundation and the Qatar Fund for Development.

However, the future of hundreds of AUAF students, many of them dispersed to different countries, hangs in the balance.

After weeks of uncertainty surrounding the private American University in Kabul, it was announced on 7 October that the Qatar Foundation and the Qatar Fund for Development had signed an agreement with the university at a lavish ceremony in Washington DC, attended by former United States secretary of state Hillary Clinton, former US first lady Laura Bush and Qatar’s ambassador to the US, Sheikh Meshaal bin Hamad Al Thani.

Al Thani announced that the main campuses of AUAF would be relocated to Doha. “Qatar’s vision is in line with AUAF’s mission: education for better future of the country and the world,” he said via Twitter.

The deal would allow Afghan students to continue their education without “barriers and fear”, he said.

“The students will be part of the diverse international educational community and will be welcomed in the State of Qatar… There is an equal number of Qataris and non-Qataris, representing more than 70 countries, graduating annually from six American universities in the Education City [in Doha]. The majority of these graduates are female, more than two-thirds of them are graduates of science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” the Qatar News Agency quoted Al Thani as saying.

Al Thani said that “AUAF has not stopped teaching”, adding that it “remains dedicated to creating opportunities for its students and continuing its mission, even with the turbulent nature of the past few months.”

AUAF students would be able to continue their education while residing at the university. It would also work on “new and innovative curricula to meet the needs of Afghan students and professionals wherever they are”.

According to Qatar News Agency, AUAF students who are in the graduating stage “will receive the same care, attention and support during their stay in the Education City”, in addition to providing them with Education City facilities and giving them the opportunity to participate in the activities and events enjoyed by the rest of the students in the Qatar Foundation’s universities.

After withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, the US and some other Western embassies moved to Qatar, which has played a central role in mediating between the Taliban and Western powers.

Kenneth Holland, who was president of AUAF from 2017-19, told University World News: “There was a plan to move the university to another country if the Taliban took control of Afghanistan before I became president in 2017.”

Holland, who is now dean of academics, research and international affairs at OP Jindal Global University in India, is not involved in the implementation of the plan but says he is “focused on helping AUAF students, alumni and staff to exit Afghanistan and continue their academic studies in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Western Europe, India and other countries with excellent systems of higher education”.

Disruption in Kabul

Since the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, studies at AUAF in Kabul have remained disrupted, with subsequent political upheavals leading to the fall of the West-backed democratic Afghan government adding to the uncertainty.

Qatar currently hosts some of the students along with AUAF faculty and staff at the Qatar Foundation Education City campus after they were evacuated from Kabul in August. Many AUAF students who had been on US evacuation lists failed to make it out in time before evacuation flights ended, due to chaos at the airport and other disruptions.

Leslie Schweitzer, a board member of the university and chair of Friends of the American University of Afghanistan, told CNN at the end of August that only 50 AUAF students made it out of Afghanistan in August via the US evacuation operation, out of around 4,000 on the list of AUAF staff and students to evacuate. Around 75 others got out of Afghanistan by other means.

Established in 2006, AUAF offered graduate and undergraduate programmes based on the US system. Before the return to power of the Taliban in Afghanistan, AUAF had around 2,000 students and was viewed as one of the country’s finest institutions. Due to its association with the US, including receiving substantial US government and USAID funding, it was on the Taliban’s ‘hit list’.

While the higher education ministry reported that Abdul Baqi Haqqani, the Taliban-appointed minister for higher education, visited the deserted AUAF campus in Kabul on 31 August, just days after his appointment on 28 August, the future of the institution under the Taliban is still unclear.

Difficult for Afghan students to access

Commenting on the move to Qatar, Professor Nizam Uddin of the Afghanistan Academy of Sciences, told University World News that AUAF remained a high-quality academic institution, but only the ‘elite’ could afford to study there, and with the new campus thousands of miles away from Afghanistan, it would be impossible for common Afghan students to access it.

“There is no doubt that the quality of education and teaching methods at the American University [AUAF] were relatively good, but only very few people could afford the fee and passed through its admission criteria,” he said.

Fleeing the hardline Taliban regime, a female AUAF student with a background in civil society told University World News that not all could make it to Qatar. “Some of my classmates had all the documents and resources available to flee Kabul and move onward to Doha directly or through Islamabad, but many were left behind due to a lack of documents and security concerns at the [Kabul] airport,” she said.

AUAF business faculty student, Masooma Ahmadi, told University World News that AUAF’s plan to move to Qatar was good as far as keeping it running was concerned, but it did not suit the future plans or aspirations of many Afghans.

“Some of us, in fact many, wished to study, work and excel in our own country or the US, not in the Gulf where the climate, for instance, is very warm. Others had different plans in terms of subject of studies and so on,” she said.

“I would say this move is only good to at least salvage the institution [AUAF],” she added.

Some Afghan students chose to go to Bishkek

Ahmadi said some of her AUAF friends chose the American University of Central Asia (AUCA) in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, instead of Qatar, after Kyrgyzstan facilitated visas. “A few girls chose Bishkek over Qatar since the American University there [in Kyrgyzstan] is a longstanding institution and the girls thought it might not waste more of their time in setting up the academic system like in the new campus of Doha.”

According to media reports, at least 300 students from Afghanistan have made it to the Central Asian country.

Chairman of the AUCA’s board of trustees in Bishkek, David Lakhdhir, a London-based partner and international law expert at the firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton and Garrison, told PassBlue media on 12 October that some 180 students had been evacuated from Afghanistan over the previous 30 days, first in cars and small buses overland to Islamabad, with Pakistan facilitating visas, and then from there to Bishkek by plane.

Reports suggest, with the partial re-opening of Kabul airport, that two more groups of students have been flown to Bishkek, avoiding the overland route. Among them are US-supported ‘embassy scholars’ from AUAF.

Dispersal of students

Holland said: “I expect to see a dispersion of Afghan students throughout the developed world. There is much sympathy for the plight of young Afghans who suddenly lost their hope for higher education and all the advantages that ensue from having a higher degree.”

He is working with the Institute of International Education (IIE) in New York to identify AUAF students and graduates who are good candidates for IIE’s Afghan Emergency Student Fund scholarship. “We are helping them leave Afghanistan and arranging placements for them. We are making special efforts to identify and assist female students and graduates.”

Holland added: “We are trying to help additional AUAF staff find a way of leaving Afghanistan. There is a possibility that the Taliban regime will collapse because of an inability to provide basic public services to the people, including security, education, health care, electricity, clean water and roads.”

This would “open the door for a new regime, perhaps one formed by parties opposed to Taliban rule. The emergence of a new, more Western-oriented, regime could lead to the re-opening of private universities that offer a Western-style education,” Holland said.

“AUAF, of course, is an Afghan institution of higher education, chartered by the Government of Afghanistan. It is in the same difficult position as all other private universities in Afghanistan.”