Afghans renew call for support

April 23, 2004

Afghanistan's five universities are beset with corruption, underfunding and poor living conditions, despite the international community's expressed intentions.

In February, entrance exams taken by 40,000 prospective students were declared invalid after it was discovered that the questions had been sold.

More than 6,000 will have to resit the exams, according to Mohammed Sharif Fayez, the higher education minister.

The crisis follows protests against education ministry proposals to charge students for their hitherto free tuition. These in turn came in the wake of last November's student protests over living conditions at Kabul University.

Fifty years ago Kabul was considered Asia's finest university. It was built with US money, and British and French academics taught in 14 faculties with international links. But in spring 1992, mujaheddin guerrillas captured Kabul and the campus became a battlefield. Books and equipment were stolen, burnt or sold. The university never recovered.

"It will take us many years to catch up," said Mohammed Afzal Banuwal, vice-chancellor for academic affairs. "Our first problem is the salaries for our 400 professors and lecturers. Seventy per cent (of them) work with non-government organisations for extra money, and it is difficult for them to be here for the students.

"We want to bring new blood into the university and have had requests from academics in India to work here. We are desperate for them to come but can't afford to pay the salaries they are used to.

"We were expecting more support from the international academic community," Dr Banuwal said. "We need to bring our curriculum up to international standards and need help with that. We are starting from the beginning again but cannot do it alone."

Yet around the campus, signs proclaim cooperative projects with foreign institutes. Martin Hadlow, director of Unesco's Kabul office, said: "It's unfair to say there has been lack of support. Unesco has completely refurbished the faculty of journalism, and we sent eight professors overseas for re-skilling and teacher upgrading.

"We had an international book drive for the library and spent thousands of dollars in getting books delivered, and we have a full-time English-language teacher at the Education University. A lot of people have put a lot of effort into helping the higher education sector."

The German Academic Exchange Service has organised a retraining project for university staff in Germany and funded an information technology department. Several Berlin Universit students are training Afghan students to become IT instructors.

But Mr Hadlow said the key problem for higher education was to establish its priorities. "Can a country such as Afghanistan support more than one university? Perhaps it would be better to concentrate on vocational training, rather than turning out MA students," he said, adding that there was still the problem of rebuilding the physical infrastructure and reskilling academic staff.

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