Aiding Afghanistan, in the Right Way

Country's higher education minister welcomes partnerships with American colleges -- but only on certain terms.
July 28, 2005

Afghanistan's higher education system has been torn apart and desperately needs help from colleges in the United States and elsewhere to rebuild it. But unless would-be partners are willing to stay in Afghanistan for the long term and work collaboratively with Afghan officials, they need not apply, the country's minister of higher education said in a speech in Washington Wednesday.

"Nations in need, such as Afghanistan, may be nearly desperate, but we are not beggars," said Amir Shah Hassanyar, who is leading his country's efforts to resuscitate a formerly formidable university system that was nearly destroyed by decades of civil war and repression. "We have many needs, and we genuinely welcome opportunities for partnerships... We do advise, however, based on our experience, that there be awareness of the importance of long-term consistency, as well as cultural sensitivity, in the terms of the partnerships."

Hassanyar, a former professor of agriculture and president of Kabul University, spoke to several hundred university administrators, government officials, and other international education experts attending a meeting of the Association Liaison Office for University Cooperation in Development, which manages a joint global development project between the U.S. Agency for International Development and six leading higher education associations. 

He painted a portrait of a "once proud" higher education system, with a million students and several strong universities, that was left in tatters by a decade of rule by the former Soviet Union, a period of strife and civil war that began after the Soviets departed, and the repressive rule of the Taliban. 

Right now, he acknowledged bluntly, the "quality of education is very, very low." Nearly two thirds of the 2,000 teachers at Afghanistan's 19 colleges have only a bachelor's degree, "and most of those degrees were earned long ago." Only 104, he said, have Ph.D.'s, and most of those were earned in the former Soviet Union. 

"Afghanistan faces an immense challenge in raising the educational level of its university staff and meeting international standards of teaching and research," the minister said.

The country must not only retrain those instructors but develop nearly 3,000 more to meet burgeoning student demand. In 2002, the universities had 4,000 students; this semester, they have 40,000, and by 2010 they are expecting to have 100,000. And many of the students, Hassanyar said, are not prepared for university level work. Getting women back into education poses a particular challenge, since they were barred from schooling by the Taliban. 

The list of other challenges is long: a 30-year old curriculum; facilities in "dire need" of  reconstruction, repair and modernization; multiple universities that remain dominated by factions and ethnic groups; a dearth of library resources and textbooks.

Some progress has been made -- the country has moved to a credit-hour system, updated its higher education laws to allow for the creation of private universities, and developed a 2-, 5-, and 10-year strategic plan that includes the creation of system of community colleges, one in each of 34 provinces, that will provide technical and vocational education.

Afghanistan needs significant help to achieve its goals, Hassanyar said, and partnerships with institutions elsewhere are essential (some already exist: Southern Illinois University at Carbondale is helping Balkh University's plant and animal science departments update their teaching techniques and their technical materials, for instance, and the University of Massachusetts at Amherst is working with the Afghan University for Education to train teachers, since the country's elementary and secondary schools are arguably in worse shape than the higher education system).

But the higher education minister noted that as international aid has poured into Afghanistan generally in recent years, not all has gone smoothly, creating "concerns about accountability on all sides of the partnerships" and a public sense that "high salaries, special benefits and control over Afghan policies are now enjoyed by internationals." 

While Hassanyar did not imply that such mistrust applies to the partnerships with foreign colleges and universities, he said it was crucial that any future efforts by American or other institutions to help rebuild Afghan higher education be "true partnerships," and institutions should be committed for the long haul. "The ministry must have the right to graciously refuse the offer of short-term consultants, for example, when long-term planning and continuity are more important than short-term, quick in-and-out advisers."


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