Desperate students seek online higher education as doors shut

Stranded Afghan students aspiring for international learning opportunities are now desperately turning to narrow escape routes via the internet with underground preparation sessions.

For years, the Kabul Educational Advising Center (KEAC) in the bustling Afghan capital offered students counselling workshops, test preparation sessions and a space to study and access free internet.

Now in exile, KEAC Director Islam Iqbal wants to ensure students do not give up on their hopes, by exploring new avenues for academic pursuits.

“My only aim is, and my only hope is that while Afghan students and everybody knows how challenging the situation in Afghanistan has been, and everyone is feeling hurt with, for instance, the cancellation of the United States Fulbright Program, for international higher education communities and Afghan students there is still the possibility that these two can connect directly without needing to go through the Taliban government,” he told University World News.

Since the fall of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in August 2021 and the subsequent rise to power by the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate, the gates have been closed for almost all Afghan applicants to foreign universities, mostly in the Western world.

Faced with growing disparities at home and international isolation, Afghan students say they feel utterly dismayed at the news that the US is scrapping its hallmark Fulbright university scholarship programme for Afghanistan.

Non-recognition of Taliban-rule by the international community is one reason for the doors to the West closing. Another one has been the reluctance of the many host universities to facilitate and accept pending or even approved applications from Afghanistan, students told University World News.

Naqeeb Ullah from remote southeastern Paktika province said recent political upheavals in Afghanistan and the subsequent international ‘blockade’ of the country was hurting all segments of society, including youth.

“Before the Taliban government, I got an online confirmation of admission for a Canadian university,” he told University World News. “But it was my bad luck that I could not make it to Canada because I have been unable to get the visa despite months of waiting in Pakistan for an appointment at the embassy.”

Naqeeb said many of his classmates and friends are disheartened but have not given up. “We have family responsibilities and there are no jobs for anyone. So, those of my friends who can afford to just wait and keep studying online are doing that and the rest are just seeking any sort of work to first support the family and later think about our education.”

Islam Iqbal stressed that beyond offers of scholarships or self-financed admissions to foreign universities, the primary barrier for many Afghans is access and preparation for various language tests such as IELTS, TOEFL and others, which is a requirement for many Western countries.

“Half of the Afghan students studying in the US currently are at the undergraduate level. So, basically, the largest chunk of students we had were undergraduate students who had fully-funded scholarships from other educational institutions, not through the Fulbright Program,” he said.

Afghan students should directly access universities for scholarships via the internet, Iqbal stressed.

Among others offering tuition-free online education to students around the world, including Afghans, is the California-based non-profit University of the People (UoPeople).

Many of the UoPeople’s students are refugees, ‘dreamers’ – undocumented young people brought to the US as children – or homeless people who would not be able to obtain a college education under normal circumstances, said Daniel Kalmanson, UoPeople’s vice president of public affairs.

“UoPeople currently serves more than 10,600 refugees – more than all other colleges and universities in the US combined.” Many of the refugees are from Syria.

The university is providing 1,000 scholarships to Afghan women following the Taliban’s takeover, “so they can continue their education online from the safety of their homes”, Kalmanson said. A tuition-free online model reduces the cost of earning a college degree by up to 90% compared to many traditional brick and mortar universities in the US, he added.

Applications for the scholarships flooded in from Afghanistan, with more than 4,000 applications received to date. “Currently, UoPeople has more than 650 Afghan women enrolled at the university and new applications are pouring in daily,” said Kalmanson.

The institution is hoping to raise money for more scholarships. In particular, UoPeople does not impose requirements such as TOEFL, instead running its own language courses.