Afghans still stumble over language barrier

January 21, 2005

Kabul University remains underfunded three years after the fall of the Taleban, with academic standards below international norms and students attending lectures in subzero temperatures because of lack of heating.

Ed Burke, a Kabul-based officer for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (Unesco) said that support for higher education had been piecemeal, with donor funding focusing on the needs of the primary education sector.

There is an urgent need for English-language education. Unesco has been raising the issue of an English-language centre in Afghanistan for two years, but so far not a single donor has taken up the proposal.

The university, which was established in 1933, has 8,700 students and 450 staff in 14 faculties. This includes the medical faculty, which last June became a separate medical university.

Piecemeal international support has come bilaterally, with individual universities establishing links with Kabul. Mohammad Seddiq Azim, a physics lecturer and deputy director of student affairs, said that after the collapse of the Taleban, foreign aid helped fund some renovation - electrics and plumbing, classroom furniture and redecoration. But facilities remain rudimentary. One law student said: "We have neither fans in summer nor heaters in winter."

But Professor Seddiq said the main problems were outdated teaching methods, obsolete textbooks and a lack of high-quality staff. "We don't have skilled teachers. Only a few have masters degrees, and only a handful of professors have PhDs."

Journalism student Ahmad Munir Paam said of the teaching style: "They memorise parrot-fashion and then they repeat it in front of the classes."

Before the Soviet invasion, Kabul's lecturers used to go to the US, Germany, France and other countries to get masters degrees and PhDs. After the invasion, academics went on a formal programme to Russia, but there are now few opportunities to do this.

Mr Burke said the problem was that many professors - through no fault of their own - were not fluent in English. "There are a lot of bright young people, but often they don't speak English because the country has been in turmoil for 25 years. They don't have enough English to pass entry tests into an English-speaking university," he said. "Most of the staff are educated in Russian."

Professor Seddiq admitted that some of the lecturers were below university level and that most professors were at first degree level.

He said that the university was trying to send such professors abroad for higher education. Ten have gone to Japan in the past two years for masters degrees. Other countries have provided opportunities for professors under 35 years old to get higher education.

"We have just convinced the Government of Japan to accept professors older than 35," he said.

The English problem means students and professors struggle to keep up with the most recent scholarship. Books have poured in from across the world in response to appeals from the university library. But since most of the books are in English and some professors speak only Russian, they cannot benefit.

Science student Abdul Jalil said that students could not use the faculty library because the books were in languages they did not speak.

Jalil, a third-year physics student, complained that there was no laboratory and the faculty's computers were old. In his view, the only change since the fall of the Taleban was that the daily compulsory lesson in Islamic culture was now weekly.

Additional reporting by Gillian Sandford

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