Some things here are strikingly similar here to elsewhere, like territorial behaviour by Ministries. Others are quite different - the security situation, and the importance, and effects, of donor funding. The welcomes are always warm and the hospitality generous, and sincere. Hospitality to guests is important here.
Just getting around to and from appointments (or anywhere - walking abut is strictly prohibited) means being ferried about in 4-wheel-drive vehicles, and if in a senior official's vehicle, someone someone is always armed with an AK 47. When visiting the Ministry of Higher Education the other day, the Minister was spied leaving for an appointment; with at least 4 heavily armed guards. "Yes", I was assured, "that's because he's only a minor Minister. The Minister of Education must be accompanied by at least 2 cars full of guards, when he travels about."
Interviewing stakeholders about quality assurance reveals some fascinating, and highly varied insights into Afghan higher education. The context provides some sobering statistics. 30 years of war, invasion and civil strife devastated the nation, with consequential effects on the higher education system. With the exception of Viet Nam, Somalia, and perhaps one or two other African nations, it is hard to think of other examples of such long-term, destructive effects on higher education. During the worst times, the universities were closed, and facilities such as libraries, laboratories, and dormitories, particularly for women, were deliberately attacked and destroyed. So, Afghanistan, already one of the poorest nations in the world, and with a weak record regarding corruption, also faced an estimated one million casualties and six million displaced persons, included numbers of the country’s best and brightest, some of whom never returned.
Great progress has been made in the last decade, and the eagerness of people for education at all levels, and the determination to rebuild higher education is palpable. In 2007, there were already around 35,000 students enrolled, about one in five of whom were women. Five years before, there were hardly any. By 2009, numbers had risen to 67,000 enrolments. The story on the academic profession is more sobering - of the relatively small number of Ph. D. holders, women form just 1.75%. Nationally, around 5-6% of staff hold doctoral qualifications.
So quality constraints abound in both public and private sectors. The latter has grown strongly in recent years, with, I am told, some 35 private HEIs having sprung up, about half of whom are members of the Private Universities Association of Afghanistan. A registration process was developed by the MoHE, but there is suspicion of the private sector on the one hand, while private institutions complain about harassment and constantly changing demands by the Ministry, on the other. There is a Quality Assurance Committee within the MoE, but no private sector HEI has ever been invited to attend or provide its views, including the American University of Afghanistan, which has some significant experience of QA processes. Staff (sometimes from dubious institutions) are imported from Pakistan, at least to some of the privates, and one of the more significant private institutions here is closely linked to Preston University, a diploma mill in the US that is surprisingly active in Pakistan (I checked, and it is registered with Pakistan authorities, has several campuses there and thousands of enrolments).
But quality is also an issue in the public sector – in one of the most well-known public universities, students complain that in order to pass some courses the lecturer’s course notes must be bought from copy-shops, and in some cases, the notes have not changed since the 1970s. Bad enough in any field, but just imagine the consequences in Medicine! Ossification is also evident in public sector universities with resistance to the appointment of qualified staff from outside who might threaten the interests of the older staff. The fact that the higher education budget for around 20 public universities across the country totals US$35 million, is an added constraint. Numerous instances of public university staff moonlighting in private universities (where payments are better), exist.
The latest development is that funding for the project on quality assurance has been abruptly suspended, as a result of an unrelated problem in Pakistan that was part of the fallout from USAid’s suspension of further funding to the Academy of Educational Development (AED). A rotten apple in Pakistan does not mean that Afhanistan should suffer, but unless alternative funding sources are found, (perhaps from the Ministry of Education), the ongoing work of the QA committee, and its US and Ministerial, advisors may end. The challenge is real, and problems numerous. Goodwill, determination, transparency, and outside support will all be necessary to effect a difference.
The author was a recent guest of the Ministry of Education, investigating quality assurance.