UK-Afghan joint venture survives the bomb blast

John Morgan on British Council vow to continue scholarly mentoring work despite deadly attack

September 29, 2011

When a suicide bomber blew a hole in the British Council's headquarters in Kabul last month, it sparked a six-hour gun battle that left 12 people dead.

As insurgents stormed the building, two female teachers employed by the British Council took shelter with a security guard in a "panic room", where they endured the sounds of gunmen attempting to break through the reinforced door before they were rescued.

The Taliban said the attack was intended to mark the anniversary of Afghanistan's independence from Great Britain in 1919.

However, the council has insisted that this terrifying violence, which threatens many ordinary Afghans every day, will not stop its educational programmes.

One such project aims to build strategic leadership in Afghanistan's universities, helping higher education to train professionals, build a business sector and provide the expertise to develop industries such as mining.

Paul Smith, British Council director in Afghanistan, said the organisation's "whole operation was blown to bits" in the attack. It is now housed at the British Embassy.

But he said the attack also demonstrated that "educational relations are seen as important (by) people who are hostile", proving that such projects are "really contributing to change".

On the subject of Afghanistan's higher education sector, Mr Smith said the nation is "in desperate need of leadership to develop institutions so its people can really take professional control of their country, transform it for themselves and resist international impositions".

After the Taliban seized power in 1996 following a four-year civil war, the nation's universities were "almost reduced to nil activity with just a handful of students - and of course all were men", Mr Smith said.

"Over a period of about 10 to 15 years, just about all professionals with capability emigrated."

That brain drain has created a severe skills shortage among university staff.

"Less than 5 per cent of faculty and lecturers in Afghan universities have doctoral degrees. Less than 25 per cent have any kind of postgraduate degree at all," he said.

Another problem, Mr Smith added, is "outmoded curricula and syllabuses, with a real lack in some of the most critical subject areas: management skills and business studies. Some countries have too much of that, you might argue. Afghanistan desperately needs them, because this is a country without a corporate sector at the moment ... and no small-scale economy."

Tap the untapped wealth

To help give strategic direction to the sector, the British Council has linked Afghan participants with experienced academics and managers in the UK, who will mentor them.

The 25 participants, drawn from nine state universities and the Ministry of Higher Education, are the lecturers and managers who are likely to be running the country's universities in the near future, Mr Smith said.

The three-year programme started at the beginning of the current financial year in April.

Mr Smith said the programme has less than £100,000 in funding to date, but he hopes for more support from organisations such as the World Bank.

He points to Afghanistan's unexploited mineral wealth, and the mining industries that could develop from it, as an area where higher education could benefit the nation by building its industry.

As yet there is "no real university level training for the mining engineering and mining management world. That is an area that needs to be worked on," he said.

Among the UK mentors is Ezendu Ariwa, a Nigerian-born senior lecturer in strategic information systems at London Metropolitan University, who also holds visiting chairs at institutions in Bahrain and Nigeria.

He said he wants to help in "developing knowledge and skills in the area of ICT", as well as "enhancing knowledge capacity and knowledge transfer".

Dr Ariwa came to the UK to study with the aid of scholarships, including one from the British Council. He now wants to "ensure that these knowledge capacities in developed countries such as the UK are extended to developing-world countries".

Farid Momand, an assistant professor in civil engineering at Kabul University, is one of those receiving mentoring.

"The state universities of Afghanistan are very traditional and most colleges in these universities lack proper labs and other necessary teaching materials and references," he said. "Only a few colleges in a few state universities have been able to update their curricula and are offering good and new courses and using up-to-date books."

Kabul's College of Engineering is relatively advanced, Dr Momand said, and has received "a tremendous amount of help" in the form of textbooks and laboratory equipment from the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Dr Momand added: "The universities can play a vital role in the future of Afghanistan. Most high school graduates who do not have the opportunity to (enter) university will join insurgent groups and add to the instability."

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