Context & Culture

AAN Obituary: Muhammad Sharif Fayez (1944-2019) – a higher education reformer, come too early or maybe too late


Dr Muhammad Sharif Fayez (1944-2019), first post-Taleban Minister of Higher education and higher education reformer

Dr Muhammad Sharif Fayez (1944-2019), first post-Taleban Minister of Higher education and higher education reformer

With Muhammad Sharif Fayez, another member of the first post-Taleban Afghan cabinet has passed away. In this cabinet, Fayez served as Minister of Higher Education from 2001 to 2004. In 2004, he became the founding president of the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF), which he chaired until 2006. As president emeritus until his passing, he continued trying to influence higher education policies while improving the security and autonomy of the AUAF. Professor emeritus Michael Daxner (*), who worked as an adviser to Minister Fayez, looks back at his life, notably at his efforts to create a new higher education system in Afghanistan.

Muhammad Sharif Fayez, who passed away on 8 February 2019, was a ‘Petersberg Minister’: at the 2001 Afghanistan conference on the Petersberg near Bonn, he was nominated as a member of the first Afghan cabinet following the Taleban’s rule, in then-chairman Hamed Karzai’s Interim Administration. He was subsequently appointed Minister of Higher Education, a post he held until 2004. 

Fayez was also a poet and a professor of literature, focusing on comparative literature. He held a Master’s degree in English Literature from the University of Colorado and a PhD from the University of Arizona in American Literature. But it was Persian poetry that he knew better than almost anyone. Before returning to his country in early 2002, he was a refugee in the United States, where his family still lives. Fayez acquired US citizenship and did not give it up, which led to his dismissal in 2004. Born in Herat in 1946, he was a political intellectual and a public figure. To me, he was a friend. As a Herati, he was as connected as any repatriate from exile could be. Among his friends were many professors from the University of Herat, as well as judges, intellectuals, and also Ismail Khan, then an influential person in the erstwhile unstable system of what would become the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Later on, Fayez became distantly related to Khan by marriage.

I first met Fayez upon my return from a UN assignment in Kosovo, having taken up another international position in higher education in a conflict-torn country. He was leading a delegation of heads of Afghan universities who had come to Germany in 2003 by invitation of the German Academic Exchange Service. They asked me to accompany the group, which led to my next engagement, in Afghanistan. At the time of our encounter, the future of higher education in Afghanistan, as well as the public’s trust in President Karzai and hope in general for the country opening up were still so strong, that he easily convinced me and many of his university colleagues to immediately start collaborating and planning for the reconstruction of Afghan academia. 

 Rebuilding a higher education system

As minister, Fayez had to start everything at the same time. His ministry initially had a ridiculously low budget of 28 million USD, 67 per cent of which was earmarked for maintaining student dormitories. Some universities not deserving of the title were only established in an attempt to build up their region’s reputation. (The faculty of Medicine at Gulbahar University, in Parwan province, for example, consisted of one and a half rooms and only ‘imported’ staff. Twice a week, docents arrived  — mainly from Kabul — to hold lectures.) Each and every decision affecting universities’ internal procedures had to be decided by the ministry, and politics permeated each attempt to change or reform an issue within its authority. A student’s certificate had to get through 27 in-house procedures before being signed by the minister himself (not even by one of his deputies). The kankur, the centralised entry examination, consumed much energy and opened many doors to corruption, parent interventions and the incorrect allocation of students to the various faculties (more on this by AAN here).

It took a few months before I found myself in the room next to Minister Fayez’s office in Kabul. As his international advisor, a period of intense collaboration began. We rarely left the office and there were 25 hours in each day. Each visit to a campus was an event, not only for the students and faculty, but for Fayez himself: during the ‘golden hour’ immediately after the overthrow of the Taleban, almost no other place in Afghanistan longed so much for innovation and opening. When the Afghan delegation led by Fayez visited Germany, no one sensed that this golden hour might one day end, sooner than even experts would have expected. (This short period will still need a thorough historical and political review).

Much of what Fayez initiated was supposed to widen the horizons for education reforms and effective changes in the university system. However, these have sadly never been implemented. They included quick impact rebuilding of academic hardware, such as buildings, campuses, lecture rooms and basic equipment. This was a daily battle for resources: higher education was not a priority for either the US or EU governments. We tried to reduce the social paternalistic impact of supporting students from the upper and upper-middle classes and to oppose interventions by ‘well-meaning’ parents to place their kin in the right campus and to survive the kankur. At the time, the system favoured those students, to Fayez’s dismay.

There was a dire need for legislation and a demand for democracy and autonomy within academia. This included representative participation (particularly by students) within academic bodies, such as the universities’ senate and other committees, transparent hiring procedures for staff and a stronger position for chancellors and academic committees. Meanwhile, the government’s direct influence, especially that of the MoHE, was to be reduced mainly to financial and procedural affairs. There was a need for de-bureaucratisation of the internal procedures at universities and a correction of their public image. Children belonging to former élites, including among refugees, were studying in better universities in Iran or in the West, sometimes in Pakistan and India (and in the Soviet Union before that, although those that did often came from different social backgrounds). After 2001, this needed to change. The idea was that a domestic degree would increase a graduate’s chances of finding work within Afghanistan – although this labour market was also being subjected to heavy restructuring. The notion that a degree in Engineering, Medicine or Law would secure their child a job in the public service ceased to be reliable. Decades of war had also destroyed a homogeneous reproduction of disciplinary professionals – singular exceptions were returnees from academic exile (but they did not have trained, loyal, goodassistants or associated professors).

Another bone of contention was teacher training. The responsibility for this was divided between Fayez’s ministry and the Ministry of Education (MoE), leading to turf wars.School teachers and teacher trainers form one of the most numerous segments of the workforce, with a high share in the national budget and a substantial impact on the power of the minister (Yunus Qanuni at the time). The Ministry of Education also received a lot of funding for new schools at that time. The Ministry of Higher Education tried to secure a stronger hold on this workforce by aiming to give trainers a university training and higher degrees, while the MoE insisted on the establishment of training institutions under its supervision: Teacher Training Centres (dar ul-ma’alemin). Fayez started to develop a plan for an integrated teacher training concept, which would settle the conflict nationwide, but did not succeed. 

Most universities were in very bad shape. Campus buildings and installations were in a terrible state and things did not improve until 2004. Only ‘islands’ in the university landscape that received private investment, such as the economic sciences at Kabul University and its former medical faculty, now independent as the Kabul Medical University under Cheragh Ali Cheragh, were exceptions. Generally, most campus facilities were below standard, except for the offices of higher-ranking professors and administrators (which are non-functional structures and which Ashraf Ghani, as Chancellor of Kabul University, tried in vain to reform). Generally, the old universities that had previously been under Soviet influence, such as Mazar-e Sharif, Kabul’s Polytechnic Institute and Herat University were in relatively better shape. 

While Fayez was minister, he did not support the new private higher education institutions that started competing with the national state universities, mainly because he thought their academic level and performance were lower than those in public universities. There were only two private universities then meeting the requirement set by the MoHE, but many more were accredited through political pressure from interested groups, mainly investors. The deeper reason for him was a rather simple one: private universities host inexpensive disciplines such as Law and MBAs, while expensive subjects like Physics, Biology and Medicine remain with the state. 

Fayez regarded the US system as a model but was more inclined towards the Bologna process in Europe, a transnational restructuring of the basic curricula towards Bachelors and Masters degrees. Later, at AUAF, he ‘Americanised’, focusing on tuition fees-based BA training, although general education was to be attained at classical universities through MAs and doctorates. As for state-run universities, he was against tuition fees in education, as was the majority in the Wolesi Jirga, although there were also a few pro-tuition advocates. Fayez wanted many more students to be recruited from poor families. 

Given resistance from various sides, together we started a number of reforms that would fly under the radar. New legislation and the hope for international recognition required a Rectors’ Conference and a team of experienced advisors. Membership in rectors’ associations and access to their related networks would open doors to regional politics. Fayez advocated for the Afghan Rectors’ Conference, and it was established. The text of the new higher education law – written by a team of Afghan and German advisers – was translated by Fayez himself, only to be turned down by Karzai. The president was afraid it might hamper his electoral campaign. He was also afraid of parliamentary opposition against cuts in the social support of privileged male students, many of whom came from the constituencies of his adversaries in parliament; of the autonomy of the universities and of democratic participation of non-professors in their administration. This, was the fear, would weaken the central government’s authority and might lead to a form of “federalism” that would diversify a ‘united national system.’ 

Fayez was not a man of big gestures. He did not talk much about his ability to act emphatically, about his resilience under duress, about his enemies. But one could read from his posture and his eyes what his concerns were. He saved the faculty from being either dismissed or replaced by those favoured by patronage. His was a permanent battle against two adversaries: those who wanted to retain their corrupt and incompetent academic staff and the pressure from Ghani – then finance minister; and others attempting to radically reduce the personnel in higher education. Fayez was in favour of slow changes rather than creating more unemployment. At the same time, he was adamant about firing staff unable to perform their academic duties, such as English teachers with no English proficiency or biologists with textbooks from the 1960s. 

Forced resignation and change to AUAF

In 2004 the higher education law was still pending, but the pressure on Fayez to step down was mounting, his double citizenship being cited as a political pretext, which he did not want to give up. Fayez was denounced as being too ‘secular’. At this point, he lost confidence in the ability of the Afghan state to reform its higher education system under the prevailing circumstances. After Fayez’s forced resignation, the new minister, Amir Shah Hasanyar, demolished almost everything that Fayez had initiated. The roll-back had begun…

Fayez then became the founding president of the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF). What then had been a barren piece of land near the Darulaman ‘palace’ is today a modern campus, something between a good community college and a prestigious college of applied sciences. It has all the prospects of becoming a full university one day. AUAF initially became a symbol of what you can successfully do in Afghanistan, no matter how many obstacles. It was typical of Fayez’ ambiguity that he was grateful to receive seed money from the US Congress, while increasingly orienting the new university towards Europe and the Bologna Process. On the other hand, he realized quite early on that he would need far more money, beyond the donations to the AUAF, in order to hire adequate faculty staff and modernise the campus. This could be only done through tuition fees. Thus, he attracted the children of the emerging middle classes and some from the upper classes. In order to fulfil his wish to support less affluent students, AUAF developed a remarkable system of grants and stipends, though they were still too small to meet his aspirations.

Until 2015, I visited Fayez and his campus regularly. I was impressed by the progress his college made, and I understood his impatience regarding the pace of progress and the impediments imposed by the government. And, of course, he was aware of the tensions between wanting to give students from disadvantaged families access to higher education and the need for AUAF’s tuition fees. 

Beyond campus

Back in 2004 and 2005 I got to know another side of Fayez, who was both diligent and shy when it came to his scholarship, his readings, his philosophy and his political ideas. At home, he was not a member of the cabinet. On occasional visits from Maryland in the US, he and his wife were splendid hosts, and his capacity for irony was as remarkable as his taste. When he was alone, as he was most of the time, he was also a good host but then his sense of irony gave way to a sarcastic realism. Once, he said that he had either come too late or too early. When he was no longer in the ministry, he introduced me to the structures and mysteries of Persian poetry, his analyses of the ruling élites, of patronage in power and subtexts of the political discourse, all of which were elements for an advanced primer for understanding this country. His judgment of politicians and prominent protagonists of governance in transition resonates even today. I never met a person who was as close to my professional life in a foreign country and who provided me with such an in-depth understanding of Afghanistan.

Fayez was also well read on the Western reception of Persian literature. When he received his honorary doctorate from Oldenburg University in 2006, he cited the poet and scholar Friedrich Rückert (1788-1866), translator and editor of Farsi poetry and the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche as an expert on oriental culture, as well as the more contemporary Annemarie Schimmel, in his acceptance speech. He referred to Goethe, Hegel and Hermann Hesse as mystical minds of the West. This demonstrated another side of this political person who, in his heart, was a teacher. Even in this speech he could not contain himself from tutoring the audience – which was well received. 

In the same speech, no longer as a high representative of a state willing to reform its structures, he showed himself still full of structural optimism. But his was a programme for a higher education system in a civilised and developing society that would need an educated class instead of having to create one. 

Had he come too early or too late? Fayez was an ambiguous personality: on the one hand, he was a traditional, if democratic, representative of the humanities in the classical university; on the other, he was a “Western” higher education reformer. As a minister, Sharif Fayez tried to get it all done at once, and he would have succeeded had the ruling élites allowed it. As founder of the AUAF, he created a remarkable institution of higher education. And he succeeded in slowly mixing faculties imported from other countries with Afghan lecturers. As a political peer, he was the strongest advocate for academic freedom and democratic infra-structure of higher education. His plans for community colleges were exceptional, but he had neither sufficient time nor opportunities to establish such institutions. Beyond all other merits, he was a humanist and a person for whom politics were inseparably linked to culture. 

I shall miss him, we will miss him. I know that many well-educated Afghans miss him, among them many former students under his tutelage. The vigor of his tenure has gone. For now.   

Edited by Thomas Ruttig

(*) Michael Daxner is a retired university chancellor and professor of sociology and conflict research in Germany. He worked in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005 as an International Advisor for Minister Fayez, and afterwards as a conflict researcher and consultant for the development and civil society until 2015. During this time he cooperated with the MoHE and, among others, with UNAMA, UNHCR and UNICEF. He is also a researcher of the Afghan diaspora communities in Western European countries and North America.

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture