Economy & Development

How good are Afghanistan’s private universities? An interview with the author of AAN’s latest paper


Graduates of one of Kabul's private higher education institutions. Photo: promotion material

AAN is launching its latest paper, looking at the state of Afghanistan’s private higher education sector (download paper here). Over the past five years, private universities have experienced an unprecedented boom. This is not only good news. In this interview, the author of the paper, Niamatullah Ibrahimi (*), an Afghan analysts who has extensively researched and written about current and historical affairs of Afghanistan, highlights the advantages of more education opportunities opening up, but also explains the challenges this new and rapidly growing sector faces, from oversight issues and the competition with the state sector to the lack of quality standards. He also raises concerns regarding some of the private institutions influencing students politically and religiously, with, as he says, longterm consequences for the stability and security of the country.

Niamat, you wrote a 26-page paper for AAN on the private higher education sector. Why did you think this topic deserved a research project in the first place?

A strong higher education sector is paramount for the future of Afghanistan, so the rapid growth of the private providers, from seven institutes and universities in 2008-09 to 82 in early 2014, seemed like good news. Also, thanks to these private universities, Afghanistan is on the way to its largest educated class in history. However, some of these institutes don’t provide quality education; others aim at influencing students politically and religiously instead of focusing on their education. Furthermore, there are tensions developing between state higher education institutions and the private ones. We need to start an informed debate on standards and how they can be monitored not only for state higher education, but also the private universities. We also need a debate on how these two strands of education can co-exist and possibly strengthen each other, instead of sabotaging each other.

How do you explain the boom of private universities?

Several factors are coming together here. One is the quickly rising demand. The expansion of primary and secondary education has created a wave of students who want to go ahead with tertiary education. The so-called ‘youth bulge’ – 48.4 per cent of Afghans are under 15, and 50 to 60 per cent are under 18 – will provide even more. Another reason is that the public sector is not where it needs to be in terms of standards.

So the private universities are better than the public ones?

Not necessarily. They certainly do a good job advertising their ‘quality services’, but looking at what they really offer, it comes down to actual resources. My study does not go into detail on the individual universities’ quality standards, but there are significant general patterns. For example, most do not have proper libraries with the necessary academic materials – or any libraries at all. Many are also located in unsuited compounds – houses built for private living and not for campus life and needs. All of this affects the quality.

However, private institutes have indeed taken the lead in introducing new technologies, disciplines and teaching methodologies. They offer short-term courses, more evening classes and, in general, courses on topics that are higher in demand, such as computer science, English and accounting classes. At least partially, their quality seems to be higher than at state universities.

Some also say, though, that private universities are for ‘dummies’ as they attract many young Afghans who did not pass the state university entry exam, the Kankur, but are able to pay the fees for a private education – with money trumping knowledge or talent. Following this narrative, the standard is low as the students are weak. Is this what you found?

Well, a high percentage of these institutions are commercially oriented, meaning tuition fees are their only source of revenue – therefore, they attempt to attract as many students as possible. It seems to be common that students who failed in the Kankur turn to private institutions. Most of these private universities do their own entry exams. However, they are not always taken seriously. I found only a few who would have failed students in larger numbers because their scores were too bad. On the other hand, private institutions also attract better lecturers as they tend to pay more, for example Afghans with masters or PhD degrees from abroad or Indian and Pakistani teachers who introduce standards from more advanced education systems. However, it is important to differentiate between the various types of private universities and the intentions and philosophies of their founders.

Summarising the quality – what would you say?

Summarising the quality, I would say: the majority of private higher education institutions or universities is not that good, and some are really bad.

But there is some monitoring of the private institutes, isn’t there?

Regarding this question, we have to come back to the tensions between the private and the state higher education institutions I mentioned earlier. The private ones are supposed to be registered and monitored by the higher education ministry. However, there is little capacity to do so. The two departments charged with, among others, reviewing curricula and staff quality are under-staffed and under-equipped and also have to deal with the whole state sector. Regarding the latter, clearly cases of conflicting interests occur, to the disadvantage of the education on offer. For example, one of the departments in charge often relies on relevant departments at Kabul University and other state universities to assess curricula in private institutions. In one case, a chancellor of a private institute told me that he had proposed to include “comparative politics of state building” and “comparative experiences of political reconciliation” in the political science curriculum of his institute – useful topics, one would think. The proposal was rejected because the law and political science faculties at Kabul University, who were asked to assess the curriculum, did not have such subjects in their curricula.

Many people I spoke to during my research mentioned a kind of ‘professional jealousy’. There seems to be a tendency among state education actors to see private providers as ‘opponents’ and competition rather than as potential partners.

You state that private higher education institutions need to be watched as they seem to “gain a strategic significance for the future of the country, with profound implications for political stability and security.” How so?

In the 1960s, we saw the same expansion of an educated class – with long-term consequences. The emergence of the first social and ideological movements of Afghanistan, from the 1970s to the 1990s, had its roots in the university campuses of the ’60s. Among the players were many of today’s leftists, nationalists, extremists. Thinking about the long term, the major question is what the consequences of the current development will be. One argument, for example, that I point out in my paper is that Afghanistan’s economy does not have the capacity to absorb all these graduates, which already in the shorter term might create fertile ground for social unrest.

Another, related concern you are raising is the influence of religious and political networks on the private higher education.

Exactly. What I see is that there is a significant number of private universities established by political and religious figures, intending not to educate their students but to expand their social and political bases. As these universities were mostly founded by people who have become wealthy over the past decades of conflict, they don’t rely on tuition fees to survive and can charge lower fees. This is attracting not only students with mind-sets similar to those of the universities’ founders, but also those who otherwise could not afford an education, exposing them, too, to partly extremist ideologies. This has significant implications for the impact of the educated class on Afghanistan’s future. We have to look at – private and otherwise – university campuses as drivers of the political and social environment of the country.

It is too late to say no to private higher education. There are, indeed, large advantages to having a private sector. But looking at its rapid growth, we have to act quickly and start a debate about what can be done to mitigate some of the problems we see, improve the quality and make private higher education viable in the long term.

The paper can be downloaded here.

(*) Niamatullah Ibrahimi is an analyst who has extensively researched and written about current and historical affairs of Afghanistan. In 2009, he co-founded Afghanistan Watch and, prior to that, he worked for the Crisis States Research Centre of the London School of Economics (2005–10) and the International Crisis Group (2003–05). Ibrahimi studied politics and international relations with the London School of Economics and is currently undertaking his PhD at the Australian National University.

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Thematic Category: Economy & Development