Some universities reopen, in others professors have fled

A mixture of excitement and uncertainty was evident on the faces of young Afghan students as they were finally able to return to public universities in some Afghan provinces this week.

The resumption came after almost a year of suspension due to the recent turmoil following the Taliban take-over, completed in August, and disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Taliban announced on Wednesday that they had reopened public universities for women in six provinces with a warmer climate, Associated Press reported.

But with an exodus of hundreds of professors from some of the country’s most important public universities, the prospects for other public universities reopening and classes returning to normal are grim.

The BBC’s Pashto language service reported earlier this week that since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, some 229 professors from Afghanistan’s three major universities, Kabul, Herat and Balkh, have left the country for various reasons.

This includes 112 from Kabul University, which is not expected to reopen until late February or March along with other universities in Afghanistan’s colder regions.

In the warmer areas such as southern Kandahar and eastern Nangarhar provinces, public universities reopened their doors this week, while the colder regions will kick off with studies on 26 February, according to a statement last month from the Taliban’s Ministry of Higher Education.

Public universities reopened in six of the country’s 34 provinces on 2 February. Apart from Kandahar and Nangarhar, they include Helmand, Farah, Nimroz and Laghman provinces.

Nangarhar University, the country’s second-largest university after Kabul, which is situated on the main highway on the outskirts of provincial capital Jalalabad, on Wednesday saw hundreds of students return to classes.

Nonetheless the campus was relatively quiet as many students, particularly women and girls, stayed away with no clear policy announcement by the Taliban authorities about their hardline gender-based segregation policy.

Nangarhar student, Abdul Basit, told University World News he was so relieved to see some sort of normalcy returning to his life.

“I had given up hope and really thought that I would not be able to return here and finish my pending studies. But, thanks to Allah that proved wrong and I am very happy to be back and studying.”

Segregated classes

Women were allowed to attend if they were separated from male students. Khalil Ahmad Bihsudwal, the head of Nangarhar University, told Reuters news agency that male and female students at the institution would attend separate classes.

Academic sources at the university told University World News that the Taliban ‘Islamic Emirate’ was “determined to peddle its gender-based segregation policy, for which either partitions would be made in classrooms between boys and girls or they would be separated in different shifts”.

Nangarhar has reportedly initially brought in separate shifts for male and female students – men in the morning, women in the afternoon. But a female student at the faculty of arts of Nangarhar University who wished not to be named told University World News that she did not go to the university on the first day.

She and many of her female classmates still do not feel safe and confident enough to continue their studies.

“There are no clear announcements about our position, sitting arrangements and, most importantly, our future job prospects. I wish to study without fear and with hope for a positive change, not to remain in isolation and locked at home before or even after studies,” she said.

The Taliban’s Acting Minister of Higher Education Abdul Baqi Haqqani made the announcement last week about reopening universities in line with the segregation policy that has been the hallmark of his ministry since he took charge following the fall of the West-backed Kabul government in August last year.

According to him, the mixed education system for girls and boys is in “conflict with Islamic and national values”.

Nonetheless, Nangarhar-based civil society activist Wahaj Afghan told University World News that the reopening of universities was a positive step and keeping them open would pave the way for progress, peace and equality.

“All the students, who were extremely concerned about their futures, will now continue their education. This is good news for the future of Afghanistan,” he said.

Exodus of professors

However, the prospect of normal classes resuming in major areas such as Kabul and Herat, even if these universities reopen in a few weeks, has been questioned due to the exodus of professors.

The local Pashto service of the BBC reported that most of the 229 professors from Kabul, Herat and Balkh who had left the country for various reasons since the Taliban took over were graduates of those universities and had either a masters degree or doctorate to their credit.

The figures do not include those on vacation abroad or those who left Afghanistan over the past six months for medical treatment or to study abroad.

Some faculties at Kabul University, such as languages and literature, have been decimated with few teachers remaining, but the sciences have also lost a large number of faculty members.

One of the academics fleeing Taliban rule is Shabnam Salehi, who had been teaching at Kabul University’s faculty of public administration for nearly seven years, and has now emigrated to Canada.

She was quoted by the BBC Pashto report as saying that personal and professional restrictions were imposed by the Taliban on university teachers.

Salehi, who was also a member of Afghanistan’s Human Rights Commission, said physical security may not be the biggest challenge for teachers, but the situation meant teachers felt their freedoms were taken from them,

A large number of Afghan university professors have migrated to the United States, Canada or European countries.

Kabul University’s Ruhullah Sarwan told University World News many more teachers, particularly women, are now needed to get higher education up and running with some sort of normalcy.

“We are trying very hard, but the reality is that if circumstances permit and no one is feeling humiliated or under threat, then no one would leave their own country and people but would stay behind to serve and rebuild,” he said.