Afghan enrolment crisis looms

January 17, 2003

Afghanistan's higher education minister has warned of an "explosive" situation if would-be university students are unable to find places when the academic year begins in March.

More than 24,000 students enrolled in 2002 but the government has predicted that this figure could rise to 40,000 following university entrance examinations to be conducted within the next few weeks.

Mohammad Sharif Fayez, the minister for higher education, said there was "no capacity to absorb them".

Mr Fayez added: "These young people have grown up seeing guns and bombs used as solutions. We must show them that there is another way and provide them with the opportunities to build another future. In this regard, revitalising higher education is key to what will happen in and to Afghanistan."

Last November, protests over poor living conditions and lack of electricity led to two days of clashes between police and students that left up to four students dead and others injured.

Heavily armed officers searched Kabul University on the second day of the clashes, and president Hamid Karzai promised an investigation into the cause of the violence and who was responsible.

Mr Fayez stressed that infrastructure was an "absolute priority", but also pointed to the vital need to build the skills and expertise needed at all levels, from managers to trainers of teachers.

He was in Paris for the inaugural session of the Afghan High Commission on Education, which has been set up with support from Unesco to identify immediate needs, suggest ways and means of achieving them, and offer guidance on immediate and long-term funding.

President Kharzai, who was a prime mover behind the commission, said that professional debate and exchange between Afghan intellectuals and experts living abroad and the national authorities was the best way of identifying and seeking solutions to the issues facing the nation.

The first examinations after the end of the Afghan campaign in 2001 unexpectedly attracted more than 18,000 registrations, including many women who had been barred from study during the Taliban regime. Only about 1,600 failed to gain a place, and Kabul took 25 per cent of the students.

With a number of students transferred from other universities in Afghanistan, there were more than 7,000 students at Kabul last April. With just 400 staff - including 50 women - spread across 14 faculties and 56 departments, the lack of laboratories, lecture rooms, textbooks and other teaching facilities was a major handicap.

Unesco is to fund the Afghan High Commission's secretariat in Kabul until it finishes its task in May. Unesco director-general Koichiro Matsuura called on the international community to provide the financial, technical and material support needed to rebuild and expand education in Afghanistan.

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