University teachers unpaid, academic activities stalled

More than 100 days since the Taliban took power in Afghanistan, establishing its Islamic Emirate in mid-August, academic activities in all public universities across the country remain stalled and university and school teachers remain unpaid amid grim uncertainties about what lies ahead.

Amid a dire situation for unpaid staff, the stage was set for a public demonstration by university teachers and other academic staff in downtown Kabul’s Shahr-e-Naw Park on Wednesday with the media invited. It was put off at the last moment with the organisers – concerned lecturers with support from civil society organisations – declining to state the reasons.

“There are some security concerns for which we have postponed our protest demonstration today,” an organiser told University World News.

A Kabul University lecturer from the literature faculty who asked not to be named, said he and a number of his colleagues were prepared to protest for their rights.

“We have been performing our duties with honesty and discipline every day, but ultimately we are humans and we have our needs, and families to feed,” he said.

The middle-aged lecturer said he had explored all avenues to earn a livelihood but was met with a dead end. Others have quit their teaching jobs to make a living where they can, including doing menial jobs.

“I literally fear starvation, here in the capital Kabul now. Imagine the state of others in far-flung remote corners of the country,” he said, adding that he used to be able to also earn a modest income through writing and editing in the once-robust publishing and media industry.

Afghanistan’s Tolo News reported that at least 18,000 teachers and professors have not received their salaries for months. School teachers across Afghanistan have gone on strike or no longer work in schools, leaving children who are able to attend classes without anyone to teach them. Hundreds of doctors from outlying provinces have also protested outside United Nations offices in Kabul about the non-payment of salaries.

The country has been reeling from backbreaking economic woes, with most economic activities at a standstill amid a dwindling international presence. The international non-recognition of the Taliban government has also led to a freeze of Afghanistan state funds held abroad.

Over US$9 billion worth of Afghanistan’s foreign assets have been frozen by the US after the Taliban gained power in August following the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from the country.

Promise to pay pending salaries

Earlier, in November, the Taliban-run Ministry of Finance announced that pending salaries from the past three months would be paid to all government employees in one go, including teachers and lecturers at public universities.

Ahmad Wali Haqmal, spokesman for the finance ministry, told a news conference in Kabul a “regular mechanism” would be put in place to pay all government civil servants their unpaid salaries and pending pensions.

Accusing the previous government under former president Ashraf Ghani of corruption, the Taliban official said over 60,000 pensioners had not been paid their dues for a year.

This followed the United Nations and Germany promising to pay salaries of health workers and school teaching staff in Afghanistan, bypassing the Taliban government. The UN and UNICEF (the UN children’s fund) have said that a mechanism first needs to be set up to register teachers and health workers who need to be paid.

University lecturers said they were hopeful they would be paid their salaries but were also concerned about long-term issues such as dealing with the hardliners on academic and other matters.

Continued barriers to resumption of studies

Taliban Deputy Minister of Information and Culture Zabihullah Mujahid said on 25 November that all girls’ schools and universities would re-open in the next academic year (early 2022) in accordance with Islamic rules.

However, sources in the Afghan Ministry of Higher Education told University World News major issues hinder the resumption of studies at universities – the Taliban’s undeterred ambitions to impose a gender-based segregation policy, which is proving thorny to implement due to a lack of funds, acceptance by the public and students, and a lack of female teachers.

Another reason remains how to accommodate new incoming students while those in the final years still wait to graduate.

To the frustration of academics and students, the Taliban-appointed Deputy Minister of Higher Education Lutfullah Khairkhwa earlier this week said that “apart from studies”, other activities were underway in universities.

“For example, teachers are doing their research work, administrative staff are showing up every day and attendance is taken regularly, and work is underway for their [teachers’] promotions,” he claimed on state broadcaster Radio Television Afghanistan.

He went on to say the Islamic Emirate (Taliban government) was determined to arrange for the graduation ceremony of final semester students, with a number of “alternative mechanisms” under consideration to make up for the lost time and lessons.

“The most concerned are final semester students about their passing out [graduation], but they need not worry,” said Khairkhwa, while admitting: “We have not finalised a strategy, out of a number of ways under consideration.”

Driven by mounting student demand for education, some private universities resumed classes on 6 September 2021, accepting Taliban demands such as raising barriers inside classrooms to segregate male and female students. Many students have stayed away, and public institutions have not yet been able to resume.