Medical university to set up branch campus in Afghanistan

Pakistan’s Khyber Medical University (KMU) is seeking approval from the Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the higher education regulator to set up a campus in neighbouring Afghanistan as part of plans to support the education sector in the war-torn country and provide it with much-needed medical education and skills. However, there are concerns about how it will be staffed and whether it can even include women teachers.

KMU Vice-Chancellor Zia Ul Haq told University World News this week that setting up the KMU campus in Afghanistan aims to enhance higher education cooperation and help Afghanistan rebuild its medical infrastructure for the health and well-being of its citizens.

“Our university receives a large number of applications from Afghan students who aspire to study medicine in Pakistan but cannot get admission here due to the limited number of seats,” he said.

“War-torn Afghanistan needs support from the world. The country lacks trained doctors and other medical professionals and after the US exit from Kabul, many professionals including doctors have left the country, and hospitals in Afghanistan lack staff to take care of a large population. Women need female doctors for religious reasons and the non-availability of trained medical staff is leading to a health emergency and crisis in Afghanistan.”

He said after approval from the authorities, the new campus could become operational within months. A development plan for constructing a building and staffing the Kabul campus of KMU will be shared with the Higher Education Commission (HEC) which oversees the sector.

The Pakistan-funded 200-bed Jinnah Hospital in Kabul, which became operational in 2019, will be linked to the new campus for house officer jobs, internships and practical work, with the permission of the Afghan authorities.

Afghans studying in Pakistan

Over 500 medical science students from Afghanistan are already enrolled at different colleges and institutes affiliated with KMU in Pakistan’s north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province that borders on Afghanistan.

“The number of Afghan students studying medicine in Pakistan has grown over 500% from 78 students in 2020 to over 500 students now,” said Zia.

“Due to geographical proximity and cultural similarities with Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, a large number of Afghan students are studying in different universities here and the number of Afghan students wishing to acquire higher education in Pakistan is rising after the Taliban takeover, as is evident from the number of applications for the Allama Iqbal Scholarships that Pakistan offers to Afghan university students for studying medicine, engineering, agriculture and computer science.”

Pakistan offers 100 fully-funded scholarships specifically to female Afghan students for university level studies at Pakistani universities. This is over and above the number of seats students can win on merit from 3,000 scholarships under this programme.

“Khyber Medical University has the capacity to implement the plan for an offshore campus in Kabul as the university has 17 affiliated medical colleges located in different cities of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province which offer Bachelor of Medicine and Bachelor of Surgery (MBBS) degrees, while 10 affiliated colleges are offering bachelor degrees in dental surgery and 56 affiliated colleges and institutes are offering Bachelor of Science (BSc) degrees in paramedical subjects. Some 88 affiliated institutes are offering a Bachelor of Science in Nursing.”

The research-intensive university is mainly funded by Pakistan’s HEC, which ranks it fourth among Pakistan’s 13 medical universities. It has 312 faculty members for 59 academic programmes and approximately 6,330 students are currently enrolled.

Pakistan and Afghanistan share a 2,400 kilometre-long border with three controlled crossing points. One of these is the Torkham border post 54 km west of Peshawar city, where KMU is located. According to the International Organization for Migration 2017 data, around 20,000 people per day cross this border from both sides and this route is also used by the Afghan students via buses.

Request by previous Afghan government

Zia said the request to set up a campus in Kabul was initiated by Afghanistan in October 2020 before the Taliban takeover in August last year, but a formal plan from KMU was only announced on 17 February after an Afghan delegation from the Consulate General of Afghanistan visited the university in the Pakistan city of Peshawar.

The Taliban government has supported the project because of a desperate need for skills and educational and medical facilities in the country.

For its part, Pakistan ramped up support for higher education in Afghanistan after a visit to the Pakistan capital Islamabad in December by Abdul Baqi Haqqani, the acting higher education minister in Afghanistan’s Taliban government.

In January this year Pakistan announced a US$64 million plan to support higher education in Afghanistan. The plan includes scholarships for Afghan students, construction of academic facilities in Afghanistan and the setting up of an offshore campus of Islamabad’s distance learning university in Kabul.

Zia said full-time faculty will be needed for the new campus and staffing will be in accordance with rules followed for staffing embassies abroad. Pakistani staff will be hired and Afghan teachers of medicine shall also be engaged. “We hope that Afghan graduates of medical sciences from our universities will also be able to join in the future.”

Will women be able to teach?

Responding to a University World News query about whether females would be allowed to study and teach at the planned campus, Zia said the Kabul campus will be run according to local laws and rules set by the Afghan Ministry of Higher Education.

Under the previous Taliban regime, women were not allowed to study medical sciences but after US-backed regime change in 2002, women could study and teach at universities and colleges. Restrictions were again imposed on women’s education after the return to power of the Taliban following the US exit from Afghanistan in 2021.

These restrictions include gender segregation which means female students must be taught by female teachers. Islamabad-based analyst Munir Ahmed told University World News that gender-segregated medical education appears impossible in Afghanistan as a large number of female faculty would be required for this purpose.

Pointing out the operational challenges for the Kabul campus of the Pakistani medical university, Ahmed said: “Women teachers from Pakistan might not be willing to join a campus in Afghanistan because of security issues, and female faculty from Afghanistan might not be available to teach female students.”