National university entry exams resume amid security fears

Just over a week since a deadly attack on an exam preparation centre in the capital Kabul, Afghanistan’s Taliban rulers are this week overseeing nationwide university entrance tests – the first to be held since the Taliban came to power in August 2021.

Locally known as ‘Kankor’, the written test is the only gateway for thousands of young Afghans to enter public sector universities.

Meant to take place in March this year, the exams were postponed and are now being conducted from 6-8 October in 33 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. Kabul will hold the exam on 13 October.

“We have made all the arrangements for the tests, including the biometric registration of the applicants,” Ahmad Taqi, spokesman for the Taliban-run Ministry of Higher Education, said in a statement.

He went on to claim that up to 150,000 students had enrolled for the tests and that the enrolment capacity in Afghanistan’s public universities had increased from around 86,000 last year to nearly 115,000 this year.

These claims could not be verified by independent sources as Taliban security did not allow the media to cover the tests across the country.

However, EZ Daily has noted that in Herat Province, which is the second most populous province of Afghanistan after Kabul, 6,899 people have participated in the Kankor this year, while the number in previous years in the province was said to be more than 15,000. It said this year’s statistics show a 60% decrease in the attendance of students in the entrance exam in Daikundi Province.

Naqibullah Ghazizadeh, president of Badakhshan University, said the number of candidates for the entrance exam has decreased by 30% compared to last year. Last year, a total of 10,827 students from Badakhshan Province participated in the entrance exam, of which 4,759 were girls.

Deadly attack

Kabul residents and those sitting for the test in the capital are on edge after the gruesome terrorist attack on the ‘Kaaj’ education institute, a Kankor preparation site frequented by female students of the ethnic Hazara community on 30 September – days before the exams were due to be written.

A suicide attacker at the Kaaj detonated explosives which killed at least 53 students, mostly girls, and injured more than 100. Many more were traumatised.

The institute in the city’s western suburb was a bustling learning facility for the Hazara community, known for its desire for education and progressive values. On the day of the attack, students were sitting a pre-Kankor practice test.

So far, there has been no claim of responsibility for the widely condemned attack, but it was a chilling reminder to all Afghans, particularly the youth, that no place is safe. As a result of the attack, many have stayed home instead of showing up at the Kankor test locations.

Local resident Iqbal Safari told University World News the Kaaj attack was not the first of its sort and most likely not the last.

“The enemies of enlightenment have not spared any moment or any space to attack those seeking education and freedom. We are tired of carrying the coffins of our sons and daughters,” he said before bursting into tears.

Participation by girls

The Taliban has rejected reports that it is not allowing girls to participate in the Kankor. But as girls’ schools above grade six (primary school) have remained closed for over a year, there are no fresh female high school graduates to take the tests in order to proceed with further studies.

Abdul Qadir Khamosh, head of entrance examinations at the Ministry of Higher Education, in an interview with the BBC Pashto service this week, said he did not have information about the exact number of boys and girls taking the exam but estimated the proportion of female participants at 30%, suggesting the number of girls could be around 30,000 out of the approximately 100,000 sitting the exam.

In August 2021, however, Khamosh said a total of 214,981 candidates took part in the 2020 exam, with 133,184 being male and 81,797 female (approximately 38%).

According to the local Etilaat Roz daily, the national average of girls taking the Kankor, including Kabul, has been around 40%.

The ministry has said that girls who graduated from school in 2021, before the Taliban came to power, would be allowed to sit the Kankor to enter universities. In some regions the exams will be held on separate days for girls and boys.

“Unlike previous years, not many girls have shown up for the Kankor tests,” a professor from Badakhshan University in the north of the country, who wished not to be named for security reasons, told University World News.

One local new outlet has already reported that in Panjshir Province in north-eastern Afghanistan, only 240 students sat the exam on 6 October, none of them girls. The number taking the exam was well down on previous years due to the non-participation of girl students, according to local sources.

In some cities such as Herat, in recent years, half of the Kankor candidates were female, rising to 59% in 2020. In more remote areas, the proportion was much lower, even before the Taliban takeover.

The local Pashto service of Radio Azadi reported that the Taliban government has allowed private universities to recruit up to 30% of the participants of the entrance exam, half of whom must be girls, on condition that classes for girls and boys are separated.

However, Kabul resident Mursal Saeed said not many parents can afford to send their children to private universities as the economy is in a shambles under the Taliban rule. “I may be lucky for now because my father has a private business and my uncles send remittances from abroad, but not every boy and girl can afford to pay the fees of private universities,” she said.

She went on to say that since the Taliban is not allowing women the freedom to pursue a professional career, this year’s Kankor did not feel very promising.

As it happens, the top student in the 2020 Kankor was Shamsea Alizada, a girl from the ethnic Shiite Hazara community. Alizada also dodged a life-threatening attack in August 2018 on the Hazara Mawoud Education Centre she was attending. While Alizada was not present at the time of the attack, many of her classmates were killed.

She sat the competitive exam two years later, securing an impressive mark of 98% – 353 out of 360 – to take the top position among some 200,000 students from all over the country. “I would spend up to 20 hours of my day studying for Kankor at home, school and the tuition centre, or traveling to and from these places,” the then 17-year-old told University World News in Kabul in September 2020.

Security concerns

Security continues to be an issue in the capital. Female students staged protests in Mazar-i-Sharif, capital of Balkh Province, in the wake of the Kaaj attack in Kabul, demanding better security and calling for the perpetrators to be brought to justice, according to videos filmed by the protesting girls and circulated on social media.

On 3 October, Taliban forces surrounded Balkh University in Mazar-i-Sharif and did not allow students to leave to take part in the protests, according to video footage. Some students were beaten, detained and threatened.

Other protests took place in Kabul, Herat and Bamiyan. Many of the protesters were female university students, led by women academics and teachers, who also demanded the reopening of girls’ high schools.

According to social media reports, hundreds of women marched from Herat University on 2 October. Witnesses said the Taliban shot at the women and grabbed at least one protester by her headscarf or her hair.

Dozens of female students from the Al-Biruni University in Kapisa Province, north-east of Kabul, protested on 4 October, according to other unverified social media reports.

Kabul University lecturer Ruh Ullah told University World News security was on extreme alert in and around the campus since the horrific Kaaj attack. “There is a notable decline in the number of students showing up for studies,” he said, adding it was very likely that not many students would risk their lives going to the Kankor test locations in Kabul on 13 October.

Armed Taliban were patrolling inside and around Kabul University, the country’s biggest university, which witnessed a bloody terrorist attack two years ago, which left scores of students dead.