Kabul head begs UK academe for help

August 16, 2002

Senior staff at the University of Kabul feel the international academic community should do much more to support their struggle to restore their institution after decades of destruction.

Kabul University president Mohammed Akbar Popal told The Thes : "The response of the world community of universities, and the scientific community, of which we thought we were a part, is not as we expected it.

"We have been through very difficult times. Thank God it is getting better day by day, but it discourages us a little bit."

Visitors to the university in Kabul told him they wanted to help but Professor Popal said: "We spend hours in talks, and they go, and I never hear from them again."

However, Professor Popal acknowledged the university's debt to Unesco, whose support enabled it to reopen in the spring and some 900 final-year students to graduate. Entrance examinations for Afghanistan's universities have unexpectedly attracted more than 18,000 registrations, including many from women who had been barred from study by the Taliban. Some 1,600 failed to gain a place, and Kabul took 25 per cent of the new students.

More than 5,000 students began the first semester in April, with a further 2,000 remaining from the previous semester. But with just 400 staff - including 50 women - and a lack of facilities and textbooks, the university is stretched.

"Physical conditions are not good," Professor Popal said. "Step by step, some problems are being solved and we are on our way to solving others. It has only been five to six months."

While the Afghans can deal with some deficiencies themselves, laboratory equipment, textbooks and scientific journals have to be secured from overseas.

Professor Popal's five-day Foreign Office-funded visit to the UK follows a trip earlier this year to Germany that triggered a number of initiatives.

He hopes this may be mirrored by British universities over the next few months. Some of the support he is seeking is straightforward: scientific journals, prospectuses with course curriculum details, opportunities for Kabul academics to take part in workshops and conferences.

Others are more demanding: student and staff exchanges, joint research and fellowships for under-qualified Afghan academics.

"So far I have not been promised any form of help or assistance," he said as his visit drew to a close. "But people have said they will think about itIThey will look for funds. They are willing to help... It takes time."

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