Dismay as US suspends Fulbright scholarships for Afghans
The US State Department informed the programme’s Afghan semifinalists in an email this month that it could not run the programme because it could not guarantee its “ability to provide a safe exchange experience”.
“Once future conditions allow for us to safely support Fulbright opportunities for Afghan students, we will again invite applications at that time,” it wrote.
Semifinalists were selected in April 2021 and were awaiting final interviews that had been delayed by COVID-19. Then the Taliban took over in August 2021.
According to US broadcaster CBS, the announcement has left 140 Afghan Fulbright semifinalists hanging after almost a year of waiting.
A unique scholarship programme
Although Fulbright is not the only international scholarship scheme available to Afghan students, it is unique in being a fully-funded masters programme for up to two years, while many others are only for undergraduates. The programme was established by the United States Congress in 1946 with the goal of building international relations.
According to the State Department, around 960 Afghans have benefited from Fulbright scholarships since 2003 and several Kabul University professors told University World News that many faculty members of public sector universities had sought Fulbright awards and other foreign scholarships.
With the internet increasingly penetrating Afghanistan in the past few years, more young Afghans in remote corners have been able to aim for international learning opportunities.
The latest move by the US has seriously dampened hopes. Despite the harsh winter, at this time of year there would otherwise have been an active buzz in the alleys and cafeterias in downtown Kabul, as Afghan millennials chatted with each other about opportunities for foreign scholarships and other international learning opportunities.
This was before the fall last August of the capital city to the Taliban and paralysis of the country’s education system. The streets and restaurants are now largely empty as heavily-armed Taliban fighters move about on patrol.
Kabul University graduate Shabnam Khalilyar told University World News that student gatherings hardly take place now, given the fact that there are no international flights from Kabul, students are frightened of the Taliban’s moral police, and many of the venues at which young people would have gathered have shut down due to economic woes and other reasons.
“There were so many young graduates from high schools and local universities who would gather to prepare for TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS), share views and updates, as well as try many other tests enabling them to earn seats in foreign universities,” she said.
Beyond Kabul, in rural Afghanistan, Noor Mohammad, a graduate of Paktika University in the remote southeastern corner of the war-ravaged country, said he worked for years on his English to supplement his Fulbright application. The cancellation of the entire programme has “ruined my life”, he said.
“I had planned my entire career and life around it, and sacrificed everything else for it. I am in shock now and do not know what to do,” said Mohammad, who also works as an English teacher at a local school to make ends meet and stay connected with the language.
‘Put yourself in their shoes’
UNICEF has urged the State Department to reconsider putting the scholarship programme on hold. Sam Mort, UNICEF’s chief of Afghanistan communications, advocacy and civil engagement, said in a tweet, “Afghanistan’s youth need every educational opportunity they can get. Education is the foundation of their future … please go the extra mile for them. Please put yourself in their shoes.”
Last week, some public university campuses in Afghanistan’s warmer provinces – but not Kabul – reopened after almost a year of closure due to turmoil in the country and the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition to shrinking opportunities for international study, students are concerned that many of their university teachers have left the country since the Taliban came to power. The local Pashto language service of the BBC reported recently that since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, about 229 professors from three major universities – Kabul, Herat and Balkh – have left the country.
To lure back these educated professionals, the Taliban-run Ministry of Higher Education issued a statement on Thursday 10 February, urging all university professors who left the country to return to Afghanistan and restart teaching. In their absence, the country’s education system was “incomplete”, the ministry stated. “We respectfully ask all the professors to return and strive for the target of development and progress of the country,” it said.
Afghanistan’s Khaama Press said the ministry has promised to provide the lecturers with the same financial and working conditions they had before the collapse of the previous Afghan government.
The ministry also announced the hiring of new academic staff. However, local media quoted a number of professors saying they have been forced to quit to make way for new appointments in line with a Taliban agenda that revolves around a gender-based segregation policy and ‘Islamisation’ of the curriculum.