UK Chevening scholarships resume, but with limitations

Afghan students have only half-heartedly welcomed the resumption of Chevening Scholarships to study in the United Kingdom, announced by the British government after months of uncertainty, because Afghan citizens resident in Afghanistan and certain other countries will not be eligible.

The new round of scholarships, funded by the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and partner organisations, to study for a year-long UK masters degree effectively splits Afghan applicants into two groups – those residing inside the war-ravaged country and those abroad.

“We have concluded that prospective applicants currently residing in Afghanistan would likely face serious security risks, and financial and logistical implications, over which the UK government has no control,” according to the announcement on 5 October opening the coveted Chevening scheme to Afghan nationals, almost two months after citizens of other countries were able to apply to the Chevening scheme.

“As a result, we are offering Afghans, resident outside of Afghanistan, the opportunity to apply for a Chevening Scholarship to study in the UK,” said the announcement, adding that for the 2023-24 academic year, it will only be able to accept applications from Afghans who are resident in a “UK Overseas Development Aid eligible country, where we run Chevening, other than Afghanistan”.

Since the Taliban seized power in August 2021, Afghanistan has been diplomatically cut off from the rest of the world and securing visas remains a serious challenge for Afghan people, along with an array of other threats and obstacles.

“After two months of our persistent advocacy, @FCDOGovUK agreed to open the Chevening Scholarships for Afghan citizens living in a third country. Although it is not what we hoped as applicants from inside Afghanistan are excluded, it is still excellent news,” tweeted educationist and former deputy minister in Afghanistan, Atefa Tayeb.

Former diplomat and education activist Hazrat Wali Hotak told University World News that the resumption of scholarships should pave the way for full access to Afghan students to all foreign scholarship programmes.

“Young Afghans abroad can find their way to learning opportunities anyway, but it would have been better to keep it available for the youth inside Afghanistan because a very large number of them are remaining inside the country and are very keen on such openings,” he said.

Dented hopes

Restricting eligibility for the scholarships has dented the hopes of aspirants like Obaid Gul Yar, a final year medicine student at Kabul’s Spinghar Medical University.

“I had long dreamed of making it to the superior British universities to pursue higher studies in medicine, surgery or any other health sciences subjects,” he told University World News.

The 29-year-old has been working part time and attending English language courses on his weekly days off to achieve the marks required for the highly competitive scholarships.

“We have faced and overcome so many challenges, these logistical issues and all other problems could have also been resolved had they [the British government] not excluded Afghanistan-based students from the programme altogether,” he said.

Just over a year since the rush to exit Afghanistan by United States and allied forces and the subsequent rise to power by the Taliban, Afghanistan’s higher education sector has witnessed an array of dramatic setbacks, attacks and restrictions. This includes the cancellation of key fellowship programmes such as the US-funded Fulbright scholarships and many forms of assistance when the US ceased all development assistance to the Taliban regime.

Although there are reports the Fulbright programme might also resume with similar limitations, Afghan education activists say young people should not be the victims of the politics that have led to these suspensions – notably the non-recognition of the Taliban regime.

The US State Department in January this year first cancelled the Fulbright process for those who had reached the semi-final stage before the Taliban came to power, but then two months later in March after an outcry, reinstated it for that particular group of Afghans.

In August 2021, the UK also reversed its suspension of Chevening Scholars that had already qualified for 2021 entry. The government previously said it was suspending the programme because the lack of diplomatic relations with the Taliban-led country meant they could not process the visas within Afghanistan.

Just days after the resumption of Chevening Scholarships for the Afghan students residing outside the country was announced, the Russian embassy in Kabul announced 500 seats for youth of the war-ravaged country.

Other scholarships are being set up specifically for Afghans outside their country. Fearing curbs, lack of opportunities and security threats, thousands of young Afghans fled the country last year with many remaining stranded in neighbouring countries as well as countries in the Middle East.

Many students were evacuated from Afghanistan through the efforts of the Afghan Future Fund and Government of Qatar, supported by several non-governmental organisations and academic institutions.

The Qatar Afghan Scholarship Project was launched last month as a joint initiative by the Qatar Fund for Development, Afghan Future Fund, Schmidt Futures, the Yalda Hakim Foundation, Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and the Institute of International Education.

It will provide full scholarships to some 250 Afghan students – split equally between Afghan men and women – at more than 40 US colleges and universities for the 2022-23 academic year.

“The students will be coming to the US from a number of countries where they were forced to seek refuge last year, including northern Iraq, Kyrgyzstan and Albania,” according to the announcement on 21 September.

“Afghan Future Fund was established just over a year ago in order to provide a horizon of hope for Afghanistan’s most talented citizens, whose lives were suddenly upended by the Taliban takeover,” said Vance Serchuk, founding board member of the Afghan Future Fund.

“Even as Afghanistan has receded from the headlines, the creation of this extraordinary scholarship programme – the largest of its kind for refugee and displaced students – sends an unmistakable message that Afghans are not forgotten.”