Government makes plan to support Afghan higher education

Pakistan is assisting Afghanistan in building some university facilities as well as providing scholarships for Afghan students as the Taliban regime in Kabul struggles to reopen public universities.

The Pakistan government’s plan to support Afghanistan’s higher education has reached “a final stage for execution, Education Minister Shafqat Mahmood told University World News on 24 January, adding that different projects prepared in consultation with Afghan counterparts worth PKR11.2 billion (US$64 million) have been sent to Prime Minister Imran Khan for approval.

“Pakistan plans to expand its scholarship programme for Afghan students, provide technical support to upgrade Afghan universities including digitisation and help reconstruct facilities at universities in Afghanistan.”

He said that Pakistan has consulted the authorities in Afghanistan prior to designing projects for support.

Increased learning opportunities for women

While the segregation of men and women at universities in Afghanistan is an internal matter for Afghanistan, digitisation and availability of distance learning will increase learning opportunities for women in Afghanistan, according to Shafqat Mahmood.

Higher education in Afghanistan has suffered due to prolonged closure of universities and subsequent uncertainty about female students’ access to higher education after the Taliban takeover of Kabul in August last year. Preparing public university buildings and other facilities for classes which segregate men and women students is costly and Afghanistan has few resources while its overseas assets remain frozen by the United States and allies.

Although not yet announced, academics believe Pakistan may offer to build women-specific academic facilities for universities in Afghanistan, but sources said the exact use of the funding from Pakistan will be decided by the government of Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s Deputy Minister for Higher Education Lutfullah Khairkhwa said during a news conference on 18 January that some public universities – those in warmer provinces – will resume final semester courses for undergraduates “in the next 10-15 days”, signalling a limited resumption by early February for those due to graduate this year in those provinces.

This comes after a long delay due to “infrastructure challenges”, according to officials. But academics said this was due to a revamp of university curricula along Islamic principles.

Many private universities in Afghanistan reopened in September last year with classes segregated by gender.

Afghan minister’s visit to Islamabad

Pakistan unveiled the US$64 million package when Afghanistan’s Acting Higher Education Minister Abdul Baqi Haqqani visited Islamabad in December last year and met Pakistan President Arif Alvi.

Haqqani held technical discussions at the Higher Education Commission (HEC), the higher education regulatory and funding body in Islamabad, during an earlier visit, during which Haqqani was accompanied by Khairkhwa and Kabul University Chancellor Osama Aziz.

President Alvi told the visiting delegation about Pakistan’s plan to help digitise Afghan universities and provide facilities for online education assisted by Pakistan’s Allama Iqbal Open University and the Virtual University of Pakistan, while the National Vocational and Technical Training Commission will execute training programmes in different technical fields.

HEC Executive Director Shaista Sohail told University World News that Pakistan’s US$64 million package for supporting higher education in Afghanistan will focus on expanding the existing scholarship programme for 3,000 Afghan students to study various disciplines at Pakistani universities.

“The support will also include a programme of free training to 5,000 Afghan nationals for skills development, training of 150 Afghan university teachers, 100 scholarships in nursing, besides establishing a campus of Allama Iqbal Open University in Kabul,” she said.

Academics believe digitisation of higher education in Afghanistan may help improve women’s access to learning. Vice-chancellor of Islamabad’s Allama Iqbal Open University Professor Zia Ul-Qayyum told University World News: “Digital transformation support to Afghanistan and availability of distance learning either online or through formal correspondence may improve girls’ access to higher education.”

Sohail said the scholarship programme for Afghanistan already provides for 100 special seats for women besides what they can win on merit of the 3,000 scholarships on offer for Afghan youth.

Prospects for women

Human Rights Watch in its World Report 2022 expressed doubt on improved education prospects for women, despite the Taliban announcement of allowing women to study in a gender-segregated environment.

The report states: “A lack of female teachers, especially in higher education, likely means this policy will lead to de facto denial of access to education for many girls and women.”

The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation held a special session of its Council of Foreign Ministers in Islamabad on 19 December on the humanitarian situation in Afghanistan which requested its secretary general, through unanimous resolution No 29, to “arrange for a delegation of prominent religious scholars led by relevant religious institutions, to engage with Afghanistan on issues of vital concern, such as, but not limited to, tolerance and moderation in Islam, equal access to education and women’s rights in Islam”.

Following Haqqani’s visit to Pakistan, Arab News reported Afghan authorities welcoming initiatives from Pakistan.

“Not only do we need scholarships for Afghan students but also help in reconstructing educational infrastructure, digitalisation of institutions and training of teachers,” engineer Roohullah Ruhani, director of promoting educational programmes at the Afghan Ministry of Higher Education, told Arab News.

According to Pakistan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “Besides scholarships to Afghan students, Pakistan has constructed Rehman Baba School and hostel in Kabul, Allama Iqbal faculty of arts at Kabul University, Sir Syed science block at Nangarhar University, Jalalabad, and Liaqat Ali Khan engineering faculty block at Balkh University in Mazar-i-Sharif; and pledged [in 2019] US$2 million for Afghan students to pursue business management degrees at Lahore University of Management Sciences [in Pakistan].”

The Pakistan Foreign Office website states that around 50,000 Afghans who studied in Pakistan are currently back in their own country.