Afghan universities are losing their scholars and students

As academics are replaced by religious scholars, those that remain fear the worst, while student interest is plummeting, says an Afghan observer

十二月 4, 2023
A crashed F-16 in Afghanistan, symbolising Afghan academics' declining optimism
Source: iStock

Before the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, universities were looked upon as the key to building an innovative and well governed Afghanistan, and all Afghans encouraged their sons and daughters to try to find a way to do a degree.

Meanwhile, the mood on campus was upbeat. The main topic of discussion among faculty was their academic progress: what articles they were going to publish in which prestigious journal; what academic conference they were going to attend; what plans they had for their futures, either inside Afghanistan or abroad. Although we still had only a limited number of departments providing master’s and doctoral programmes, the sense was of a sector on an upward trajectory.

Yet, two years on from the unexpected collapse of the previous, Western-backed government, the main topic of faculty discussion is now the relentlessly disappointing news regarding Afghanistan's higher education sector.

Which scholars have left the country this week, and how? Which academic has been fired and replaced by a religious scholar? Which university manager has been replaced by a mullah? Which students or teachers have been censured by one of those mullahs for not wearing a turban or not having a beard? Who has read the religious books they are required to study by the mullahs who are paid by the Taliban to enforce religious observance (even though most scholars have already studied those books because almost 99 per cent of Afghans are Muslims)?

Genuine scholarly life has ground to a halt. Although some national conferences are being held by the ministry of higher education, very few academics take part because of the censorship imposed on the research topics and because scholars are so demotivated by the prospect that all of them are ultimately going to be fired and replaced by mullahs or religious scholars.

The former government used to provide great scholarship opportunities to travel abroad, but I have not seen a single one advertised recently. Before the Taliban returned to power, a friend of mine was offered scholarships to study in Thailand and India. However, he was holding out for an offer from the European Union or Australia because he believed he would receive a better education there.

“But when the government collapsed, my dreams also collapsed,” he told me. “I waited for one more year to find one such opportunity, but I realised that it is impossible now, so I started my master’s degree at Kabul University. I really regret not choosing to go to Thailand.”

Graduating students are also in despair about their futures. At the end of one of my lectures, I usually invite questions. Recently, a student asked: “My dear teacher, it is the final year of my undergraduate studies and we are approaching graduation. What future career opportunities do you see for us?” In a very disappointed tone, he went on: “I personally do not have any hope of finding a job because people who get jobs in almost every sector are somehow related to the Taliban. They usually appoint those who are graduates from madrasas [places for religious education], not university graduates.”

This was a very shocking question for me and I was totally speechless for a moment. Then I argued that the student should not lose hope and make sure he graduated. I made that point because this sudden devaluation of degrees has prompted many undergraduates to drop out in their second, third and even fourth years of their degrees, preferring to look for non-graduate work to earn a small income to support their families. But I am as unconvinced as my student was that his degree will open the door to a graduate career.

Students’ waning interest in university study is clearly illustrated by the declining numbers taking the Kankur Exam, the national university entrance examination. Some departments that previously enrolled 100-120 students are now enrolling as few as three.

Soon, perhaps, there will be no students at all. And no genuine academics either. That will be a catastrophe not just for those directly affected, but for an entire nation that once saw hope on the horizon.

The writer, who is based in Afghanistan, prefers to remain anonymous.



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Reader's comments (1)

I agree this is an absolute tragedy. I worked with the Ministry of Higher Education for several years before the Taliban takeover and there was a great feeling of progress and optimism as the quality of the university offerings rapidly increased. Now all of that is being discarded. The most tragic aspect of all is the removal of educational opportunities for women. My Afghan colleagues are now dispersed around the world trying to make new lives for themselves and their families but they still watch from afar and are filled with sadness.