The 24 May complex Taleban attack in the heart of Kabul and, to a lesser extent, the demonstration of Kabul University students against the Law for the Elimination of Violence against Women (EVAW law) overshadowed another student protest in the Afghan capital. For eight days ending yesterday, some 80 students mostly of the Social Science Faculty of Kabul University were on hunger strike in front of parliament. They protested about the discrimination against certain student groups and nepotism among the university’s leadership. AAN guest analyst Niamatullah Ibrahimi(*) looks at the wider implications of the protests and at necessary reforms of the country’s leading university.
The students’ hunger strike began on 20 May with a modest set up. By its end on 27 May, it was a national issue with ethnic overtones. The Minister for Higher Education, Obaidullah Obaid, the President’s National Security Advisor, Rangin Dadfar Spanta, and Senior Presidential Advisor Niamatullah Shahrani themselves had shown up at the scene to promise the students that ‘all demands’ would be ‘accepted and implemented starting tomorrow’. Indeed, one faculty dean and one lecturer were suspended over the students’ allegations, more than 40 students were rushed to the hospital after a week of hunger strike and an editorial in one of the country’s leading newspapers, Hasht-e Sobh (8 am), praised the peaceful demonstration and civil society’s support for it as a great moment and example for the civil movement in Afghanistan. The newspaper also demanded that parliament needed to follow up now and approve the Higher Education Law – which had been rejected by the Wolesi Jirga once again on 26 May because of a dispute about which term in which of the country’s language(s) should be used for ‘universities’ – in order to find a permanent solution for standardising the education system of Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, on the day after the hunger strike, on 28 May, new demonstrations were on the way. In Kabul, around 500 students called to reinstall the suspended teachers, saying that the students on strike had not represented the entire faculty, but had acted on ‘directives from outside’. Another demonstration of 200 students in Mazar-e Sharif, on the other hand, supported the strikers’ pressure for reforms at Kabul University (see media coverage here).
Meanwhile, late on 28 May, presidential spokesman Aimal Faizi called the decision to remove the two university teachers as incorrect because of the lack of a ‘proper investigation’.
The hunger strikers in Kabul had called for the removal of Faruq Abdullah, the head of the Social Science Faculty of Kabul University, and of Faisal Amin, one of the lecturers; Abdullah, who holds a bachelor degree, has been serving in the post for over 27 years. The protesting students accused Abdullah and Amin of prejudice and discrimination and questioned their academic and professional qualifications for holding the posts. They claimed that students from minority groups were deliberately and consistently given low marks in semester and annual examinations and that, by this discrimination, Abdullah and Amin created divisions among the students. The students also alleged that many faculty members were related to one another in complex family and personal relationships.(1)
Faruq Abdullah had vehemently denied the student’s allegations, though. In an interview with the BBC on Sunday he said: ‘These dear students have become tools of [certain] MPs and ethnic leaders. I am a Muslim. God says [one’s] superiority is only in virtue and not … in being Pashtun, Tajik or Hazara.’
From the students’ statements, it was not clear precisely what the alleged acts of discrimination are, but the large majority of the students participating in the protest were Hazara. Hazara students at the university have substantially increased in recent years but they remain underrepresented among its faculty members.
Over the past few days, Afghans have taken a keen interest in the protest on social media websites such as Facebook pages featuring news and photos of the hunger strike (see one example here). Most of them were also Hazara, but other students joined in, supporting demands for new teaching materials, a new library and reliable internet access at the university. The hunger strikers’ camp became quite a busy scene with visitors from Afghan civil society and members of parliament. Most were Hazara, too, but among them were also influential non-Hazara such as the speaker of parliament’s lower house, Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi, an Uzbek, and the first deputy of the lower house Mirwais Yaseni, a Pashtun. Additionally, 250 Afghan writers, artists and university lecturers abroad and in Afghanistan signed a letter in support of the hunger strikers, including filmmaker and author Atiq Rahimi and writer Rahnaward Zaryab.
Sima Ghani, the head of the Secretariat of the Joint Anti-Corruption Monitoring and Evaluation Committee (MEC), came with more than moral support. She backed the students’ demands by revealing some of the findings of MEC’s own assessment of internal examination processes in universities in Kabul. The draft report,(2) seen by the author, confirms much of the widespread complaints about poor educational standards, corruption and ethnic, religious and regional prejudice.
It mentions ‘a lack of teachers familiar with the credit system’, ‘teachers’ low professional capacity’, a ‘lack of knowledge about new student-focused teaching methods’, also a lack of ‘enforcement of the legal mechanisms of examination processes’, ‘external interferences’, little ‘institutionalisation of accountability mechanisms for students’ [complaints]’ and ‘widespread ethnic, regional, linguistic and religious prejudices’.(3)
Although much of the criticism during the protest was directed at the Ministry for Higher Education, its officials acted slowly and dismissively up to the end. In a meeting headed by President Hamed Karzai on 23 May, Osman Baburi, Deputy Minister of Higher Education, reportedly called the students a ‘bunch of luchak’ – gangsters – and ‘politically motivated’. This only increased resentment and frustration among the protesting students (see report here).
The reactions by supporters and opponents made apparent that the hunger strike was more than just a singular event. It must be rather seen as an overture to an important debate about much-needed reforms at Kabul University and the higher education sector more broadly. The need for such a debate rises in importance when one considers that the explosive expansion of secondary and university education in recent years has turned the sector into one of the most strategic for the future of the country.(4)
Founded in 1932, Kabul University is the oldest and the largest of Afghanistan’s state-run universities. Some 20,000 students are taught by about 800 lecturers in 18 faculties. In recent years, the university has been admitting 8,000 new students and graduating 3,000 each year. According to Minister Obaidullah, in June last year, more than 150,000 students studied in 90 universities, including 59 private higher education institutions, across the country (a list of Afghanistan’s 20 public universities here).
The size and the symbolic importance of Kabul University render the institution central to the challenges for the country’s higher education system. The university is usually called ‘mother university’ to mark its historical and social significance but it is also beset by huge challenges that effectively limit it in fulfilling its proclaimed role of leading the higher education sector. A large majority of the university’s faculty members lack the basic academic credentials for entry into any credible university outside the country. In an interview with the BBC, the head of Kabul University recently stated himself that more than half of its 800 faculty members have only bachelor degrees (see the article here). Some of them, including Ghulam Faruq Abdullah and Faisal Amin, also occupy senior academic and administrative positions, such as heads of faculties and departments.
Besides the poor academic credentials of faculty members, teaching practices at the university are probably among the most archaic of modern universities in the world. Ilham Gharji, a young academic with a master’s degree from Kirghizstan and chancellor of the private Gawharshad University, has recently harshly criticised the situation at Kabul’s universities. Curricula and teaching indicators were old, he said. The teaching itself was largely confined to the delivery of lectures, which the students are expected to memorise and conform to at examinations, and academic sources were rarely updated. Gharji said: ‘Some of the material is 30 years old. Teachers have inherited it from their teachers’ (see media coverage here).
Students have also protested against corruption in the entry exams for the university, the so-called ‘kankur’, and called for their reform, a demand called legitimate by President Karzai in June last year.
In addition, students say that critical thinking and independent reading is often discouraged and students with ideas opposed to those of their professors are humiliated. In their relationship with their students, university professors enjoy unrestrained power. It is not rare to hear complaints about faculty members engaging in favouritism based on personal or ethnic relationships or bribes, of critical students being humiliated in front of their peers and of sexual harassment of female students (see one report of sexual harassment here). Alleged abuses are difficult to follow up on because of the highly centralised bureaucratic system and because the appointment of teachers is controlled by the Ministry of Higher Education and influenced by faculty members’ political connections.
All this, together with the university’s rigid bureaucratic structure, poses great challenges to a serious reform. Younger and better-educated cadres and a fundamental overhaul of its administrative structure are required. The latter must include a standardisation and modernisation of examination procedures and, in general, greater institutional autonomy from the government bureaucracy. The on-going protests also show that Kabul University needs to create a new complaints mechanism that can credibly address allegations of gender, ethnic, and other forms of discrimination. Grievances and frustration are widespread among the students of Kabul University and are likely to grow if necessary reforms do not address their demands for respect, accountability and quality of education.
(*) Niamatullah Ibrahimi is an analyst based in Kabul and the author of a forthcoming AAN briefing paper on private higher education in Afghanistan.
(1) This is based on author’s conversations with the protesting students on Wednesday, 22 May, and Saturday, 25 May 2013.
(2) Forthcoming; so far in Dari. The title translated: ‘Assessment of Vulnerabilities of Internal Examinations at Central Universities’.
(3) See also the 20 April 2012 IWPR report ‘Students Live in Squalor at Afghan University‘ here and the 5 June 2012 Afghanistan Today report ‘ Higher Education? It’s a Chinese Puzzle’ here.
(4) By 2014, about 600,000 Afghans are expected to graduate from the country’s high schools.
Photo courtesy of Ariana News.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020