Economy & Development

Cheating and Worse: The university entry (kankur) exams as a bottleneck for higher education


Getting into university via the so called kankur exam is one of the highest hurdles for Afghanistan’s young generation wanting to obtain higher education. Each year, there are allegations of corruption, fraud and flawed management of the exams while the number of high school graduates sitting them increases. AAN’s Obaid Ali (with input by Christine Roehrs) looks at this term’s kankur exams and concludes that the challenges have as much to do with internal corruption as with the technical limitations of a higher education system that still suffers from a lack of reform, teachers and financial means.

The most recent scandal around the university entry examination, known as kankur, (1) happened even before the test itself could start. On Sunday, 16 February, the Herati kankur exam board within the Department of Education cancelled all exams for the whole province, announcing that they would be postponed. As Afghan daily Hasht-e Sobh reported, the officials had found out that teachers from the Ustad Reyaz School in the province’s capital had somehow obtained the right answers to the test and given them to students beforehand. The Herat National Security Directorate took this mass attempt at cheating seriously and arrested 42 students, including one girl, as well as an “official” from the school. However, Sayed Abdulwahid Qetali, the head of the Herat Provincial Council, says that this was not the first time he had heard about answers to kankur exams having been sold to students – often allegedly by “someone in Kabul” for up to 4,000 dollars.

But the list of kankur scandals is longer. Only six weeks before, a ministerial commission had declared thousands of exam results in Logar void. Its members claimed that Provincial Council members and members of parliament from the province had, against the rules, insisted on staying among the kankur participants, handing out mobile phones to some students so that they could call for help to answer exam questions. The delegation from Kabul also suspected local officials of having stolen the ‘key’ for the multiple-choice questionnaire and given it to certain students, helping them to score higher.

The Ministry of Higher Education (MoHE) had tasked the delegation to help organise and conduct the kankur exams in Logar (it was one of the first of such delegations deployed as the ministry just established this routine in November last year). Exams usually take place from mid-December until about now, end of February. For the contested exam – one of four in Logar that took place at different locations on the same day, 26 December 2013 3,632 high schools graduates, including 280 female students, sat in the municipality hall of the provincial capital, Pul-e Alam. After the examination, members of the Kabul delegation collected the answer sheets and locked them in boxes.

Up to today what happened or why has not really been clarified , but on the way back to Kabul the delegation apparently threw the whole set of answer sheets in a canal by the roadside. Lotfullah Safi, the head of the delegation and a lecturer at Kabul University’s Faculty for Environmental Sciences, later on justified this with his anger about the “local officials and strongmen” having interfered in the kankur and threatened the delegation. In one of many TV interviews he gave about the incident he said: “I was authorized to cancel the exam results if needed so I did.” It sounded like: no one pushes me around.

However, the news spread over the whole province and resulted in student protests (see here and here), including blockades of the Kabul-Logar highway. The students demanded that the delegation members be put on trial. After three consecutive days of protests and a push by Logar’s representatives in parliament, on 11 January, the MoHE issued an apology and promised to repeat the entry test.

Ethnic ‘imbalances’, students cheating, warlords interfering

It was far from the only incident around the kankur that, countrywide, paves the way for twelfth-graders into the 19 state-run universities, though. Every year, there are accusations of mismanagement, fraud and corruption (see earlier AAN coverage, for example, here or this general report finding “corruption entrenched in the education system”). In March 2013, Azizullah Ludin, then head of the High Commission of Oversight and Anti-Corruption, demanded the abolition of the kankur altogether as “half of the corruption in the Ministry of Higher Education is linked to it.”

In July 2013, a Deputy Minister of Higher Education, Bari Sediqqi, admitted during a conference in Kabul under the title “Evaluation of Decisions Regarding the Kankur Exams and Its Performance” that there had been difficulties with kankurs from the start. “Irresponsible individuals” intervened in the tests, which were also “poorly overseen by lecturers, allowing the students to cheat”, he said. Regularly, reports surface of students sitting the exams who are not even high school graduates. This year, also the quality of questions was criticised by students and university lecturers alike. They mocked, for example, one asking for the name of the Afghan president’s wife (also quite a culturally inappropriate question). Rohullah Redwani, lecturer at the private Ibn Sina University said that the kankur questions were not suitable for helping to “evaluate the scientific and academic skills of the students.” Tolo News quoted a student saying that “with only a little focus, everyone can get accepted to university.”

But the problems reach deeper. There are allegations that students pay for places in universities. A USAID report even mentioned students buying both entrance into and graduation from universities. There are detailed descriptions of how provincial authorities or local warlords dictate who attends university or passes courses. A 2007 study for the International Journal for Education Policy and Leadership, for example, described how “almost all of the 19 university presidents said they were frustrated by interference from government officials telling them which students they could or could not admit and which professors they could and could not hire.” It also pointed out that

6 out of the 19 universities are located in provinces ruled by warlords and drug cartels that have no regard for education and threaten anyone who opposes them. The warlords and drug traffickers actually tell the university presidents who is allowed to attend their universities and even threaten university officials if certain students do not pass courses.

In light of the development of the security situation this is not likely to have changed for the better since.

In March 2013, right after the kankur results announcement, thousands of twelfth-graders staged rallies in Kabul accusing the MoHE of manipulating the exam results to get more candidates from the provinces into universities – at the expense of students from Kabul who had, according to these students, achieved better results at the kankur than the competitors from outside. According to the protesters, 45,000 students from Kabul sat the entry test, but only 16 per cent were admitted to schools for higher education. They demanded that all results be nullified. The MoHE rejected the allegations and insisted that the kankur was transparent and results could not be cancelled.

The focus on elementary education

The existing system of higher education appears not to be ready to withstand the increasing pressure and to appropriately react to the hunger of Afghanistan’s young generation for education. This has as much to do with internal corruption as with the technical limitations of a system that still suffers from a lack of reforms, teachers and financial means. The National Higher Education Strategic Plan 2010–2014 detailed as the most pressing problems “outdated curricula, under qualified faculty members, lack of proper classrooms and laboratories, under sourced libraries and the lack of adequate information technology”. Currently, a new commission within the ministry is being established to develop the next five-year-plan – which will again have much to do with the same problems, as a ministry source says.

In the face of these limitations and slow progress, the question remains how a ‘just’ system can be created to deal with the ‘rush’ on the universities. So far, the Afghan state has not officially decided if it wants ‘the best’ students in its universities, thereby often automatically deciding in favour of students from urban areas with better access to education, or if ‘positive discrimination’ is needed, giving chances to disadvantaged groups such as students from rural areas. The High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption, after having demanded the abolition of the kankurs in March 2013, opted for the first solution, suggesting to “enrol those students of classes 9, 10, 11 and 12 that score” high in school “to their favourite faculties directly”. (2)

In July 2013, however, the MoHE suggested the latter solution, attempting to introduce quotas for the admission of students from different provinces to universities. It got such harsh reactions from civil society activists, political parties and MPs that it dropped the plan. Civil society activists described it as a “political plot” (there seemed to be anxieties that the palace and the – Pashtun – president were behind an initiative to get more students from Pashtun and southern provinces into universities), while political parties said it was against the Afghan constitution and fair competition (more here and here).

Another problem is that the bulk of the international attention for reforming the education sector has been and still is focused on elementary and secondary education (getting children enrolled and keeping them in school), thus creating a backlog of students who reach the final year and want to go ahead with higher education but cannot be absorbed by the system. The number of candidates applying for slots at state-run universities significantly increases every year. In 2014 alone, 250,000 students have applied to sit the kankur – 75,000 more than last year when 175,000 sat the exam. For next year, the MoHE currently estimates 300,000 young Afghans applying.

The ministry tries to increase the number of students accepted to university but cannot follow as fast as needed. Deputy spokesperson Akhtar Muhammad Abeir said that for 2014 the MoHE can allocate 57,000 university slots – 13,000 more than last year (44,000). However, already in 2013, an additional 30,000 students who had hoped for a university degree and achieved the necessary minimum of 167 kankur points (of 332) had to be diverted to one of the 12 so-called Higher Education Institutes (moassesaha-e tahsilat-e ‘ali, in Dari; also called community colleges). These provide much needed but less desired two-year diploma courses in, for example, teacher training, accounting, agriculture or computing (the diplomas can be upgraded to a bachelor degree later). The rest of the applicants – those who score less than 167 kankur points – are often left without alternatives (see numbers from Ghor and Daikundi here). Their only opportunity is to either wait for the next kankur in the following year to give it another try or enrol at a private university – if they can afford it. Many of the approximately 95 private universities or higher education institutes are accessible to everyone, but cost at least 350 US dollars per semester, regardless of the quality of teaching. (3)

That way, each year the gap between those who are accepted to university and those who are not accepted or who are diverted to higher education institutes due to systemic constraints will inevitably grow larger, leaving more candidates frustrated – and creating the potential for social unrest.

Does Afghanistan need some 100,000 university graduates?

The main reason for the bottleneck, education officials say, is the lack of physical space and qualified teaching personnel. According to its deputy spokesperson, the MoHE has already established 35 new faculties and 126 departments in the past two years. But still: even at Kabul University, the oldest and largest of Afghanistan’s state-run universities, “there are 100 students trying to study in a classroom designed for 30,” according to Abeir. He calls the approach “a focus on quality rather than quantity” – which is debatable as the quality is not yet where it needs to be (see earlier AAN coverage here).

The overcrowded universities also raise the question of where the growing number of university graduates per year will end up, in a country with a flailing economy, no large-scale industry and a weak private sector. The already ‘personnel heavy’ Afghan bureaucracy can swallow only so many new members of the educated workforce. Does Afghanistan need some 100,000 university graduates per year? Or rather: what kind of graduates does it need?

In this context, a former minister of higher education, Mohammad Sharif Fayez, criticised the fact that most students were interested in studying medicine or political sciences, while the country actually needed more teachers and experts in agriculture. Fayez said that he preferred to establish more higher education institutes in Afghanistan rather than universities as they answered better to “the needs of the job market”.

A new commission ‘improving’ kankurs

The central level claims that it is mostly the provincial authorities who are not able to conduct professional kankur exams. From Ghazni comes also the story of 6,000 students having had to listen to several hours to officials’ speeches before they were allowed to start the test. It started so late that the supervisors pushed the participants to be faster, to finish before it got dark. Roqia, a female twelfth-grader, told AAN, “I forgot to select my desired faculty, because of the panic.” Ghazni’s governor, Musa Khan Akbarzada, confirmed that the students had to fill in the answer sheets with the help of vehicle headlights.

However, the repeated protests caused a reaction. According to the deputy spokesperson of the ministry, the MoHE, in November 2013, established the Supportive Commission of the Kankur Exam (kumission-e hemayawi-ye kankur) to ensure its transparency and fairness. The commission has 300 members, including universities directors and members of the universities’ lecturers union. It is tasked to oversee exams, to cooperate with local officials – and to nullify results in cases of fraud and intervention by local officials on the provincial levels.

It was one of this commission’s delegations who threw the Logari kankur results away.


(1) From French: Concours, an act or process of coming together and merging. See also the Dari Wikipedia here.

(2) The system works as follows: Students can opt for five courses of study they favour, also for one location for each course of study. In theory, a computer program assesses the answer sheets and choices and assigns students to faculties. Each faculty requires a certain score; in general faculties in urban areas are harder to get into as they require a higher score because their equipment and their teaching staff are considered better. If a student does not score high enough for any of his chosen faculties, he drops out altogether (is not assigned a slot in another faculty, called benatedja, without result). The availability also depends on how many slots there are at the different university locations. A student can score high yet be unlucky and still not get into his or her most desired course of study.

(3) A comprehensive review of the private higher education field is yet to be done. AAN has a paper forthcoming.

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Thematic Category: Economy & Development, Rights & Freedoms