Rise in number of scholarships for Afghans raises questions

The Pakistan government’s announcement that it will increase the number of full scholarships offered to Afghan students at a time when the country faces international criticism for its deportation of those Afghan nationals residing in Pakistan without proper documentation has raised several eyebrows.

Pakistan experienced an influx of Afghan citizens after the Taliban seized control of neighbouring Afghanistan from the Ashraf Ghani-led government following the withdrawal of the international security force led by the United States.

Pakistan maintains its deportations are motivated by a massive surge in sabotage and terrorist activities since the Taliban took over in Kabul in August 2021, and claims that Afghan nationals have been found to be involved in these activities.

According to the Pakistan government announcement on 2 November, 1,500 Afghan nationals per year (an increase of 500 scholarships), some of whom are to be women, will be enroled in various disciplines, including medical science and engineering, at Pakistani universities on fully funded scholarships offered over three consecutive years, thereby facilitating the education of a total of 4,500 students from Afghanistan.

According to the government, the scholarships are part of an existing national Pakistani scholarship programme, now entering its third phase.

A link between repatriation and scholarships?

Madad Ali Shah Sindhi, Pakistan’s interim minister for education and professional training, told University World News: “The decision to repatriate illegally residing Afghan nationals and offer of scholarships to students from Afghanistan are two different things having no interrelation.

“Sending back undocumented Afghans residing in Pakistan is the decision of the interior ministry while [the] scholarship offer is in continuation of an earlier programme called Allama Muhammad Iqbal Scholarship for Afghan Students.”

Pakistan is currently seeking applications for masters and PhD students. The advertisement states that Afghan students will be required to sign an undertaking that they will return to their country upon completion of degree.

Dr Mukhtar Ahmed, chair of the Higher Education Commission, told University World News that Pakistan was committed to providing the best possible support to Afghan students for higher education. “We are offering 4,500 scholarships to Afghan youth for their capacity building in various fields including medicine, engineering, agriculture, and management and computer sciences,” he said.

Bilateral relations boost

“We will not only offer free education but will also provide accommodation, books, travel and a living stipend to Afghan students under the third phase of the scholarship programme for Afghan students that aims to bolster bilateral relations between the two countries through promoting people-to-people contacts,” he added.

He said the launch of the third phase of the programme was related to the birth anniversary of the renowned poet of Urdu and Persian Allama Muhammad Iqbal, who crafted the idea of a separate state in the 20th century that led to the creation of Pakistan in 1947 nine years after his death.

He said Iqbal, as a poet of Persian language, is also well-regarded in Afghanistan.

“The launch of the third phase of scholarships and deportation of illegally residing or undocumented Afghan nationals from Pakistan have no link with each other,” he said.

“The restriction of signing an undertaking for going back to Afghanistan after completion of degrees is not something specially done for Afghan students – this is a global practice – and they should return for reconstruction and service to their own country and fellow nationals. The development of Afghanistan is the aim of this scholarship programme,” he added.

Easing tensions

However, independent analysts believe that the increase in the number of scholarships provided in the third phase, compared with 3,000 scholarships in each of the previous two phases, indicates that Pakistan seeks to reduce criticism from international agencies over the evacuation of Afghan refugees, to ameliorate political friction with the Taliban-led interim government in Afghanistan and to limit the general annoyance of the Afghan population over forced deportation of Afghan nationals.

The UN Refugee Agency, European Union and Amnesty International have urged Pakistan not to forcibly send Afghan nationals without legal documents back to Afghanistan.

In a statement posted on the website of Amnesty International, its Interim Deputy Regional Director for Research in South Asia, Nadia Rahman, urged the government of Pakistan to continue its historic support for Afghan refugees by enabling them to live with dignity and free from fear of deportation to Afghanistan where they face persecution by the Taliban.

Idrees Khawaja, an education consultant in Pakistan, told University World News: “The idea of increasing the number of scholarships … can be seen primarily against the backdrop of the recent repatriation of Afghan nationals residing in Pakistan without valid documentation.” He said that efforts to ease tension between the two countries through the promotion of higher education were commendable.

“Education diplomacy should further be enhanced to promote bilateral relations with neighbouring countries,” he said.

The challenge for women students

Although 1,500 scholarships out of the total of 4,500 are reserved for female students from Afghanistan, academics have cast doubt over whether these will be made available to Afghan female students given the Taliban’s restrictions on women in higher education.

In Afghanistan women in the health sectors are allowed to continue with their jobs, but under very tough and discriminating circumstances. But medical students of the final year have not been allowed to complete their studies and even the midwives have been denied further study or completion in final years under the Taliban, who retook control of the country in August 2021.

In August this year, some female Afghan students were stopped from boarding a plane bound for Dubai where they were going for higher education on fully funded scholarships.

Dr Aisha Anees Malik, associate professor and acting director of the Centre of Excellence in Gender Studies of Islamabad’s Quaid-i-Azam University, told University World News that although women are offered one-third of the scholarships, it is likely that they will be discouraged from applying knowing they have to return to Afghanistan at the end of their studies.

This was despite the fact that “Afghan women need female doctors as cultural and Taliban restrictions forbid females from receiving medical treatment from males,” she said.

“The condition of Afghan women requiring medical attention and treatment is really disturbing and they are forced to consult quacks or untrained medical staff. There is a dire need to talk to [the] Taliban-led Afghan government [in order to] facilitate medical education of Afghan female students so that Afghanistan could get women doctors,” she explained.

Pakistan started the Afghanistan-focused Allama Muhammad Iqbal Scholarships Programme in 2007. Since then the majority of Afghan students have opted for study in universities in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, which is closest to Afghanistan.

Wider educational support

Before the launch of the third phase of the scholarship programme, some of the universities in this province were already offering degree programmes to Afghan students which include Khyber Medical University (KMU) of Peshawar and Abdul Wali Khan University in Mardan city.

In 2021 KMU and Peshawar’s University of Engineering and Technology expressed an interest in opening campuses in Afghanistan but there has been no material progress on the issue since then.

“The public sector universities in Pakistan’s north-western province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa that borders with Afghanistan are the first choice of Afghan students due to cultural similarity and less travel distance,” the Vice-Chancellor of KMU, Dr Zia-ul-Haq told University World News.

Referring to a meeting last month with the deputy consul-general of the Afghan Consulate in Peshawar, Mufti Noorullah Hotak, he said: “We have offered an unlimited number of seats for admission in all programmes at KMU for Afghan students, especially the female students.

“The offer is beyond the scholarship number, on an equal fee as charged to Pakistani students. We will encourage Afghan female students to enrol for medical education as Afghanistan needs trained women in the medical field.”

Abdul Wali Khan University Mardan (AWKUM) in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province has already set aside 50 seats for Afghan students. Professor Zahoor-ul-Haq, vice-chancellor of AWKUM, told University World News the university had allocated 2% of its seats for Afghan students in every field of study. “We are committed to supporting reconstruction of Afghanistan through education support,” he said.

Academics are less hopeful that by opening their doors to Afghan students, Pakistani universities can promote women in higher education in Afghanistan unless women are permitted to travel abroad for higher studies and are allowed to return for service to their community and enjoy a safe and conducive environment there.

As Malik told University World News: “The Taliban’s attitude towards women education and empowerment first needs to be changed in Afghanistan.”