Economy & Development

One Thousand Dollars for Books per Year: Afghanistan’s undersupplied universities

Underfunded, out-dated: Afghan university libraries mostly rely on donations, or they offer decade old titles. The textbooks detailed in the newly developed curricula and syllabi are seldom available here. If faculties possess them, they are kept under lock and key in professors' offices to protect them. Photo: Christine Roehrs

Afghan university students still do not have proper textbooks. Their professors give them so-called ‘chapters’ – copies of excerpts from lecture notes or books that are often out-dated. Libraries on the other hand remain underfunded dumping grounds for donated books that mostly do not fit needs, curricula or lecture contents. Why is that still so, 13 years into an intervention that has hailed education as a success story? AAN’s Christine Roehrs analyses the three main barriers to more, more relevant and up-to-date learning and teaching resources and explains how these interlink with other issues: curricula reform, budgets and the lack of coordination with the primary and secondary school sector. She introduces solutions suggested by professors and advisors that would finally provide students with suitable textbooks. Unfortunately, she says, neither the upcoming new five year strategic plan for the higher education sector nor the few big donors in the field seem to see the urgency.

The books are one indicator for what’s still wrong in Afghan higher education. Or rather: the lack of books. While students on campuses elsewhere in the world usually lug around heavy backpacks full of literature, Afghan students often do not carry much more than narrow plastic binders with a few photocopied pages in them. No wonder: there is not really much to learn from – 13 years into an intervention that has hailed education as one success story of development efforts.

A few random interviews with students at Kabul University in September 2014:

Tamim is in the second semester of studying economics and about to go to a lecture on macro-economy. Rolled up under his arm in a blue plastic binder, he carries about 20 pages copied from a ministry-produced booklet on the basics of economy. There are no other literature recommendations on the topic for the course, he says. “We get through these pages, we know what we need to know.”

Mohammad Rassul is studying mathematics. He is headed to an internet-café outside the campus to see what he can find online about the “use of graphs in statistic problems.” The department possesses two “modern” books on statistics, he says, and they did not contain what he needs to know. A whole group of students gathers around the author, complaining that there is no up-to-date literature on “analytical geometry, complex analysis, differential algebra and many other topics.” One says, “We have very intelligent professors, but they cannot provide us with new material. They say they do not have access to computers to find it, or their English is not good enough to translate things for us.”

Naqib-ur-Rahman is studying veterinary sciences in the second semester. Standing at the counter of a university copy shop, he is ordering copies of 30 pages his professor compiled on “Veterinary Medical Terminology.” The cover sheet does not identify the book(s) the information was taken from. The content looks rather simple, saying what “the houses of animals” are called in English (“coop”, “kannel” [sic]). The library of his faculty, says Naqib-ur-Rahman, is “well stocked, but mostly with English books I do not understand.”

Why Afghan university students do not have proper textbooks – and other challenges

The larger, underlying cause for the sorry state of today’s learning and teaching material at Afghan universities is the comparatively late attention to higher education. Until 2010, neither donors nor the Afghan government had much interest in this field. Student numbers, on the other hand, had already started to grow exponentially (see a graph illustrating this here, p 16). This was mostly because the Afghan government and international community had, for years, focused heavily on the primary and secondary school sector. This rendered those sectors (sort of) a ‘success story’ indeed (1), but missed the point that the system produced more graduates than the tertiary system – ie the universities – could handle. An internal USAID assessment of the implementation of the current (soon expiring) National Higher Education Strategic Plan 2010–2014 puts the “huge growth in graduates from secondary education” at “36% in 2012, 59% in 2013, and 36% in 2014 – almost all of them hoping to get into higher education.” Between 2002 and the end of December 2013, the number of students in all Afghan universities had already increased from 31,203 to 123,524. Thus, the number of students sitting the university entry exam has been – and still is – jumping up by the tens of thousands every year. (2)

Today, the ministry and 34 public universities and higher education institutes are desperate to make space for more students where there isn’t any, while simultaneously trying to fix a long list of ailments. These include the abysmal higher education infrastructure in many provinces, quality assurance issues, the un-finished curricula reform, capacity building for teaching staff, access to university education for women, problems with the reorganisation of the corrupt system for university entry exams, or the academic and financial independence of universities.

It is probably no wonder that a number of items from this list were neglected, forgotten or adjourned to tackled later. The provision of up-to-date and accessible learning and teaching materials was among them. Textbook drives remained often-random, comparably small-scale efforts, mostly in the form of donations or faculty-to-foreign-faculty partnerships (see for example here) – helpful at times, but never providing enough books for all faculty and central libraries countrywide, let alone enough copies to satisfy students (for the textbook situation in a few of the provinces see this article in German). What students are taught is therefore often left to chance, depending on the skills and resources of local professors. This aggravates the usage use of old, out-dated, and random material and helps produce dramatically differently educated students of one and the same within a field across the country.

This World Bank “Country Summary of Higher Education” stated already in 2007 that “ . . . teaching materials and pedagogical methods are grossly outmoded. . . . Resources are not available for the purchase of indispensable pedagogical inputs such as internet access, textbooks, journals and lab materials.” Seven years on, still, something that should be at the centre of studying and learning – up-to-date, standardised, accessible and understandable learning and teaching material – is treated by ministry and universities, and also donors, as if it should or could be dealt with later. The main barriers to more and more relevant textbooks in the system remain.

Barrier number one – the budget

Barrier number one is the budget. Staff at Kabul University (3) says they do not have “a single Afghani for its central library,” neither do faculties have money to stock their own, smaller libraries, and the same applies to provincial universities’ libraries.

A look at the running-costs budget for higher education with one of the finance managers at the ministry shows why. The running costs budget comes in three pots. The largest portion of around 37,898,400 million dollars (2,200,000,000 Afghani) is set aside mostly for salaries. The second pot of 30,792,400 US dollars (1,787,500,000 Afghani) mostly covers the costs for dormitories, food for students, furniture, water, electricity, etcetera. The third pot of 215,332 US dollars (12,500,000 Afghani) covers smaller purchases or repairs.

It is the second part of the budget that, in a sub-category, details a budget for purchasing books. It is a tiny pot, with 34,453 dollars (2,000,000 Afghani) for all 34 Afghan universities – thus basically allotting 1,000 dollars to each university for purchasing books. And no regulation obliges universities to actually spend the money on books. They could spend it on other items in this sub-category (stationary, boards and the like) or redirect it to requirements of the larger pot – possibly using it to pay power bills or maintain dorms.

Afghan university libraries therefore mostly rely on donations. During one of the days at Kabul University in the recent weeks, Homayun (just one name), assistant head librarian at the central library, showed the newly arrived books. They sat in a large stack of maybe 250 on a table in the middle of the head librarian’s office. “These have been brought in or sent by embassies in Kabul, by well meaning people abroad or by foundations,” Homayun said. Many of them can confidently be called useless. The first book picked up was an Iranian translation of “Awakening Your Child’s Natural Genius”, a book that will go into the psychology department of the library, but would be better off in the self-help section of a second hand book store. The second was a lexicon of social market economy in French – a language not widely practised in Afghanistan. The third picked up from the stack was a book discarded (recognisable from the “ausgesondert” stamp) by the German Nuremberg-Erlangen university library. It was a trade law book and as “volume three” obviously part of a series, the rest of which had apparently gotten lost on the journey to Afghanistan. It also was in German.

This reliance on often random donations leaves libraries largely meaningless for students as the books do not fit professors’ lectures or the exams students face at the end of the semester.

Assistant head librarian Homayun summarises the situation as follows: “We do not have enough new books. We do not have enough copies of new books. We do not have enough books in Dari and Pashto. And our students’ English is not good enough to really understand the books we have in English.”

The better – or at least more frequented – ‘libraries’ are actually the copy shops around Kabul University. Here, professors and students deposit the so-called ‘chapters’: photocopies of excerpts from books or partly still handwritten lecture notes students are supposed to work with – or rather learn by heart, a traditional and still widely practised way of teaching and learning at Afghan universities (although slowly retreating where younger teachers take over). Hassib Copy Shop near the ‘engineering gate’ of the university for example (find a photo further down in the text), has “600 to 700” of these chapters. Hundreds of students come every week to pick up these morsels of knowledge for one or two Afghani per page, often without knowing which books they were taken from, who compiled the notes or when they were written in the first place.

Front page of a copied 'chapter' (on Afghanistan's contemporary history) from1983. Photo: Thomas Ruttig

Front page of a copied ‘chapter’ (on Afghanistan’s contemporary history) from 1983. Photo: Thomas Ruttig

Barrier number two – the lack of research culture (and enthusiasm) among professors

Barrier number two for more and more up-to-date books in the system is what Osman Babory, Deputy Minister of Higher Education for Academic Affairs, calls “the lack of a culture of research among professors.”

There is a technical and a human factor here. Osman Babory speaks about the “many, many great professors and scientists Afghanistan lost, starting with the communists’ regime” and that the remaining ones “have been cut off from the academic exchange for decades – many are not enthusiastic about teaching anymore.” Babory says: “They have to re-study their own fields. They have to publish updated teaching and learning resources, but there seems to be a feeling of paralysis.” In a recent article for the magazine of the Society for College and University Planning (see here, issue January-March 2014) he looked back on Afghanistan’s universities during civil war and the Taleban time, describing what he thinks were the reasons for the “inward focus of many faculty and staff” that is still felt in the system. He wrote:

Faculty, staff and students were harassed and sometimes arrested, and campuses were badly divided. Academic life was heavily influenced by the changing political leadership, demands for allegiance, and fear resulting from oppression and intimidations [sic]. Research basically stopped because of political interference, ideological intrusion, loss of interest and increasingly limited research funding. . . . The system had broken down in other ways. . . . Ideology, regionalism, and ethnicity took on an increasingly important role in decision making. And through it all the effects of war lingered: the fear of attacks, terrorist bombings, and killing; growing thuggery; and the inward focus of many faculty and staff – a kind of survival mode for those who had lost so much of their well-being and livelihood to war. They had become preoccupied with looking after themselves above all.

During this period, the old traditions of centralised authority became paramount, making lower-level leaders afraid to make decisions and higher-level official [sic] overburdened and potentially imperious. Added to that were major divisions about religion, the role of ideology in education, and a constant push from some segments in higher education to keep women out of universities and limit their role in society. All this made the prospect for change very limited and the chance for transformation almost non-existent. Coupled with a lack of funding and limited donor support (for the most part what aid was given went into primary and secondary education), the odds against success were very high.

Babory praises “big changes” in the faculties of engineering, geology and pharmacy (“more labs, better teachers”), but admits that there are still faculty members at Kabul University, the largest and most ‘developed’ of all universities in the country, who teach with lecture notes they compiled decades ago, copied and copied again until barely legible anymore.

At the same time, the number of teachers with higher degrees remains low at public universities, which also impairs faculties’ capacity to get research going and compile new learning and teaching resources. “Despite the efforts of the ministry of higher education, the qualifications of faculty members have not significantly improved over the last few years,” wrote Saif Samady, a former chairman of the Independent High Commission of Education, (4) in 2013. “Last year about 500 new faculty members were recruited, none of whom had PhDs and the majority possessed only BAs. Furthermore, a large number of senior faculty members reached the mandatory retirement age in 2012,” he said. “The upgrading and professional qualification of faculty members will continue to be a major challenge for the ministry of higher education.” Current figures show that the majority of Afghan university teachers – 57 per cent – hold Bachelor degrees only. Only 38 per cent have Masters, and five per cent of teachers have PhDs.

In the longer run, the large number of research or Masters and PhD scholarships available abroad for students and university teachers (provided for example by USAID, GIZ, the World Bank or UNESCO) might help break the circle of under-qualified staff, lack of up-to-date research and, thus, suitable teaching and learning materials. “In five years, these people will change the face of Afghan teaching,” says Ahmad Samin, an advisor to the ministry who helped to develop the new five-year strategic plan for higher education that will follow the current five-year plan covering 2010 to 2014. The economics faculty at Kabul University, for example, just gained eight new teachers who came back with Masters degrees from the German university of Bochum, an old partner of Kabul University from the pre-war years.

However, not all fellows might return to work in academia, and also the so-called ‘brain drain’ partly neutralises this dynamic (for examples and more analysis, see here or here). The percentage of Fulbright scholars, for example, who vanish in the US instead of coming back to Afghanistan, is now up to 35 per cent from 25 per cent in 2013, one source close to the program told AAN (see also here). The authors of a comprehensive 2013 World Bank assessment of the higher education landscape, too, note that “many Afghan students who travel overseas fail to return, and take up jobs in foreign countries.” They see “a clear need to provide a wide range of high quality degree and degree-equivalent professional programs in higher education institutions within the country”. But this is far away. Afghanistan currently offers only a few Masters courses (for example in physics, computer science, geology, mining, hydrology, exploration and extraction of oil and gas as well as education) and no PhD courses (except one in Dari and one in Pashto).

Barrier number three – the language

The largest barrier to new and better textbooks and other up-to-date resources for students is language, though. There is little quality material available in Dari or Pashto while students’ but also professors’ English is often too patchy to rely on English-language material. Material in English, however, is being promoted widely by the international community (see also what comes later on the new curricula and syllabi as well as donor strategies), simply because most international advisors helping to reform the sector either are native English speakers or are used to working in English. (5) Most new literature lists (syllabi), recently developed alongside new curricula, thus include significant portions of literature in English.

This is not helpful in a system that suffers from a lack of English skills and in a country where around 50 per cent of all Afghans do not even read and write Dari or Pashto (adult literacy rate – of those aged 15 and above – is still only 31.4 per cent; youth literacy rate – of those 15 to 24 years of age – only 47 per cent, see here). In some faculties, teachers are, since last year, directed to teach whole courses in English. This applies particularly to courses of study that the ministry and donors have identified as ‘priority fields’: engineering, computer sciences, medicine and public policy and administration. Teaching in English had already been suggested in the 2005 UNESCO development plan for the Ministry of Higher Education (“faculty development and curricular progress toward using English as a medium of instruction in selected institutions and faculties”). But it must also be credited to former President Hamed Karzai’s repeated requests to teach courses in English “to facilitate economic development.” Karzai cited India, Iran and Pakistan as examples of countries “that have made huge advances in medicine and other important fields through such an international focus on learning.”

However, while looking ahead into such a desirable future with Afghan graduates competing on the world stage, it seems to have been simply overlooked that today’s Afghan students are just not there yet – and might not be for another ten years, given that the English teaching in primary and secondary schools is still rudimentary and often produces students who are only able to say what their name is and where they come from. Half of all students addressed during this research at Kabul University could not hold a simple conversation in English.

Rahim, a sixth semester IT student, told AAN that his teachers “never teach in English, because they want us to understand the course.” Three quarters of the students at the faculty “come from the provinces and do not speak English,” he said. “Many drop out again because, while the teachers speak Dari in class, the documents they provide are often in English, and they just cannot get it.”

New curricula, new syllabi – still no books

Challenges so engrained in a system and partly rooted in responsible staff’s lethargy cannot be solved quickly. But there is progress – steps that Deputy Minister Babory is eager to emphasise. Over the past three years, the ministry has pushed most faculties at Kabul University (as the lead institution for other universities) to revise the sometimes decades old curricula; it was one of the most emphasised undertakings detailed in the current five-year strategic plan. 52 faculties have done so (countrywide representing 35 per cent of all faculties). The new curricula often include literature lists, the so-called syllabi.

But even those faculties with new curricula and syllabi have not necessarily started to implement them. Teachers complain that they are too complicated and/or that they did not have the necessary materials, meaning textbooks and learning aids, to first understand and then teach them.

Professor Anwar Ghoury of the mathematics department of Kabul University says that “theoretically” his department has been teaching the new curriculum for the past year – but in reality the teachers “pretty much stick to the materials and topics taught before,” as the new literature recommended in the curriculum’s syllabi has never surfaced.

In the economics department, Dean Said Mohammad Tingar says that of each of the books recommended in the new curriculum the faculty possesses “one exemplar, at least.” They remain behind lock and key, though, in professors’ offices, to prevent the precious books from being lost or damaged by students taking them away to copy pages. (For decades, there has also been a vibrant market for books stolen from university libraries.) This way, knowledge remains privy to teaching staff, which does not encourage students’ own research.

In the journalism faculty, too, the professors keep small cupboards in their offices with one or two copies of newer books they say they bought with their own money. “There is no money to buy additional titles, so we have to protect what we have,” one professor told AAN. Students on the other hand seldom have the money to buy books, even if they were available in the bazaar, which, particularly for specialised international titles, is often not the case. (Here lies another reason to insist on well-stocked university libraries: to provide access to textbooks and other reference lectures for everyone at no cost.) So whatever teachers at the journalism faculty want to introduce to students, they will still copy for them chapter by chapter, which means that students cannot read on beyond what is currently taught even if they want to – something that applies across faculties. AAN guest author Niamat Ibrahimi, in his paper comparing private higher education with public universities, remembers one 2013 graduate as saying that “throughout his four-year undergraduate programme, he was not required to read a single book completely.”

Even in the faculty for Public Policy and Administration, things are not well. As one of the ‘priority fields’ and because of its energetic young acting dean, Abdul Latif Rahmani, it is a favourite of the international community. It thus receives more attention and offers for bilateral co-operation from donors and foreign universities than other faculties. But still the dean says that his department has only 60 per cent of the required books in English, some in Dari, near to nothing in Pashto. “The provision of new textbooks for students, also in Dari and Pashto,” he says, “is a priority.”

Chapters, a stunted way of teaching. This copy shop close to Kabul university, one among many, offers 600 to 700 excerpts from books or copied lecture notes, usually 20 to 30 pages long. Professors base their lectures and exams on these 'chapters' and ask students to learn them by heart. Photo: Christine Roehrs

Chapters, a stunted way of teaching. This copy shop close to Kabul university, one among many, offers 600 to 700 excerpts from books or copied lecture notes, usually 20 to 30 pages long. Professors base their lectures and exams on these ‘chapters’ and ask students to learn them by heart. Photo: Christine Roehrs

More support for higher education – so will there be more books?

Good news is that donors are stepping up efforts to support the long-neglected higher education sector (the Afghan government itself, until today, invests less than two per cent of government expenditures) in higher education (primary and secondary: more than 13 per cent).

When in December 2009, Ministry of Higher Education and higher education advisers from UNESCO, World Bank and USAID introduced the first National Higher Education Strategic Plan, they had envisaged a budget of 564 million US dollars to implement it. Until the end of 2013, only about 20 per cent, 111 million dollars, have been made available (for where they came from and what they have been spent on, see (6)). This was partly, as already pointed out, because donors interested in education preferred to invest in primary and secondary education and the Afghan government rated higher education secondary to basic education, but also due to a lack of trust into the ministry’s capacity to handle larger sums. (7) However, now, the World Bank and USAID (the two largest donors in the sector), are about to launch their projects covering the next several years. The World Bank – that spent 60 million dollars on higher education in the past eight years – will provide 100 million dollars for the upcoming five years (given by the donor community into the ARTF, the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund). It will put the project money into the implementation of (parts of) the government’s upcoming five year strategic plan (2015–19), gradually disbursing money to the ministry and universities as they reach certain goals.

USAID on the other hand is investing 92 million dollars into its new five-year University Support and Workforce Development Program.

The question is whether this increased financial support will have any effect on the lack of up-to-date, accessible learning and teaching resources for professors and students.

The answer seems to be no.

USAID staff confirmed in interviews in September 2014 that its new project would not focus on learning and teaching materials. It instead intends to focus on “leadership support” and the “support of administrative features”, which entails helping to build an Afghan university accreditation system, develop quality assurance and “getting financial systems in place to prepare for the autonomy of universities.”

The World Bank on the other hand does include learning and teaching resources in its thinking, both for its upcoming five-year project and for the new higher education strategic plan it is helping the ministry of higher education to develop – but in an indirect way. Donors and ministry also seem to be skipping several steps.

The upcoming five-year strategic plan, according to experts working on both papers, will contain “strong components of virtual education. That includes access to international digital libraries and online fellowships.” Foreign faculties “will be invited to open up branches in Afghanistan,” Afghan students are supposed to “partake in online-lectures held by professors in Washington or Berlin and use the materials provided online by these universities.” But jumping into a digitalised, internationalised future of teaching and learning in English while ignoring the more mundane problem of students and professors not being able to read and understand (let alone purchase) the books recommended in the syllabi of their own newly developed curricula does not seem like the appropriate next step.

E-learning with international e-resources is only feasible if English skills among students and professors, proper internet (currently notoriously slow and unreliable (8)) as well as the necessary equipment are provided – none of which currently is the case. Asked about the lack of English skills among students and professors, ministry and donor staff confirmed that “English will be a strategic field in the new five year strategic plan.” It was, however, already part of the last strategic plan that said “higher education institutions are encouraged to provide students with opportunities to study English in the first year and continue throughout their course of study if they do not already know it.” And when an internal USAID assessment of the state of implementation of the plan in January 2014 also looked at the stated goal of “Establish[ing] strategies to teach English to as many students as possible”, the authors came to the conclusion that there was no funding to date. Only existing institutional programs are in place.

The same applies to the costly information technology needed to facilitate access to digital resources. Who will finance the equipment? Even more so as donors – who in the past already fed significant sums into the physical refurbishment of the higher education landscape (computers, furniture, buildings) – are hesitant today to continue hardware investments that just seem to produce higher heaps of broken material no one is able to mend and maintain.

The World Bank will indeed not be able to fund all measures detailed in the strategic plan. One expert in the field said: “If we are being honest, it takes at least about 20 million dollars to totally revamp one faculty alone, with library, laboratories and all that jazz.”

There is also no specific mention of learning and teaching resources in its project document, someone who saw the draft told AAN.

The World Bank has designed its project in a way that leaves flexibility for the ministry and universities about how the project money for implementing the goals set in the new five-year strategic plan shall be spent. Only broad guidelines have been given: “14 major targets” formulating overall goals that the ministry and universities must achieve to trigger the release of a next instalment of money. AAN was told: “If the ministry or universities deem it necessary to buy books or have books translated or printed to reach a certain goal, then they have the freedom to do so.” But with the already detailed long list of ailments to fix, it is questionable if ministry or university officials will opt for focusing on something they have been ignoring for the past years.

Possible ways ahead 

Afghanistan’s future depends on the workforce it is building now. Not all young Afghans need a university degree to be useful (rather the opposite, some would say, but this is another discussion), but those who do go to university should graduate as experts in their fields. This is currently not the case, also because there are, for most courses of study, few up-to-date resources in languages students understand. The higher education reform efforts of the past years have created the paradox that what is taught in many new buildings and new faculties is still ‘old hat.’

Textbooks in Dari and Pashto have not been budgeted for in the past and do not seem to be a priority for a future in which education authorities and donors seem to want to jump right into the virtual world of e-learning and digital resources. But realising this ambitious vision will obviously take more time than the next few generations of students have. It will require a systemic overhaul of the way English is being taught in primary and secondary school (training more teachers, sending more to rural areas) in order to produce students who can actually work with digital English language resources. It also requires massive investment in hardware as well as intensive coaching for professors, all of which is not likely to happen fast. Some of these efforts might not happen at all, given that the budget for the upcoming five years will not be sufficient to cover all reform projects detailed in the plan.

All of this risks developing a system that may or may not function in a distant future while neglecting the needs of today.

With the newly developed curricula and syllabi, there is an opportunity to fill this gap easier, faster and cheaper by standardising materials across the country and providing libraries with stocks of textbooks large enough for all faculties and students, thus ending the stunted ‘chapter-way’ of teaching. It should be made a compulsory requirement in the upcoming five year strategic plan that faculties spend a portion of their budgets on providing their students with at least the resources detailed in the new curricula and syllabi – and on the translation of the English language titles into Dari and Pashto. The Afghan government should contribute by increasing the annual budget by the needed sums – at least. It might also be worth thinking about standardising the existing new syllabi of Kabul faculties for all those sister-faculties in the provinces who have not yet revised their curricula in order to prevent the use of old and out-dated resources.

Previous donor or government reports have given a nod, at least, to the importance of having collections of physical textbooks and learning and teaching materials (see for example in this World Bank report, p 31/32: “The establishment for a country wide scheme, under which staff and students can access e-materials of all kinds, needs to run in parallel with suitable investment in hard copies of books and journals, as it will be some time before the academic community – particularly older academics – will be willing to work on e-books and e-resources”). These recommendations have not been acted upon so far, but talking to professors at Kabul University, ideas surfaced that are worth supporting.

There is, for example, the initiative of Yahya Wardak who is calling for a national textbook drive. He was, over the past years, the only one making a systematic effort to get at least the largest universities equipped with standard textbooks, for at least a handful of courses of study and in languages students understand. Wardak is an advisor to the Ministry of Higher Education, although his position, paid for by the German government, was not clearly defined in the beginning. So he decided to make it about supporting universities to acquire and develop learning and teaching materials. There was no budget, though – neither from donors, nor from the ministry. Yahya Wardak chose, together with professors and the ministry, textbook manuscripts by Afghan professors in Dari and Pashto as well as a number of international standard textbooks. Then he went on “begging tours”, as he calls it, to get NGOs or foreign academic institutions to pay for the translation and printing costs. He has, in this way, introduced 152 new textbooks, most of them medical ones (Mr. Wardak has studied medicine). Some of them show English text on one side and the Dari or Pashto text on the opposite page – a helpful tool to starting to understand content in another language. Wardak has letters from chancellors from provincial universities thanking him for providing these resources.

He also has, in his office, stacks of manuscripts and international textbooks that faculties requested to have translated and/or printed. He has not found the money yet, though – and it would be “a drop in the ocean” anyway. He says: “We need a nationwide textbook program for universities.” His idea is to choose, besides Afghan professors’ recent and quality checked works, “at least five international standard textbooks for each subject and have them translated to Dari and Pashto to help professors update themselves and then, with the help of these resources, publish own textbooks customised to Afghan students’ abilities and needs.” Providing international and English language resources only, Wardak says, does not help professors to re-study their fields and reform their teaching. “They will anyway only use those publications they know, where they had a part in developing or wrote themselves. Ownership is important,” Wardak says, meaning that professors will be more likely to use the newly developed textbooks, instead of ignoring them as often has happened with donated books in the past. (9)

The initiative of the dean of the public policy and administration faculty, Abdul Latif Rahmani, is also worth studying. He has gathered professors from other faculties teaching his subject across the country to jointly choose textbooks from the new syllabus and translate the books in a “cluster-approach, with the strong colleagues supporting the weaker ones.” This, he says, “helps bring professors up to speed, and it also helps with the ownership of the products.” He does not know yet where the money for printing the books in large enough numbers for all faculty libraries will come from, but he hopes that his approach will contribute to a higher quality of teaching not only in Kabul, but also in the provinces, adjusting some of the diverging quality levels. It sounds like a recipe that could be applied to more faculties.


(1) Focusing on getting children in school, particularly girls, and keeping them there seemed appropriate looking at early enrolment figures. In 2001, fewer than one million Afghan children went to school. Since, their number has increased to 8.5 million in 2012/2013 (5.2 million boys and 3.3 million girls). However, over one million of those enrolled are permanently absent. And still “only 55% of children of primary school age are attending school,” states the 2010/11 Afghanistan Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey. Find more in this UNESCO 2013/14 Monitoring Report.

(2) The demand is rising fast. Between 2011 and 2015 alone, it will have nearly tripled. In 2011, about 117,000 young Afghans sat the kankur, university entrance exam (of 150,000 graduates from secondary school, see here, p 18). In 2013, according to one spokesman of the Ministry of Higher Education, it was already 175,000. In 2014, 250,000 young Afghans applied for higher education. And for 2015, the MoHE expects up to 300,000 students to sit the kankur, as one spokesman told AAN. (For problems with the university entrance exam, the kankur, see this previous AAN dispatch).

(3) AAN’s Thomas Ruttig remembers from his days studying at Kabul University that in 1983 the central library “was still quite good, with a broad variety of western, eastern bloc and Afghan books; different countries had supported different faculty libraries and the central one over the previous decades.” Most of the material, he says, was destroyed during the mujahedin time, between 1992 and 1996, though, “when Hezb-e Wahdat used the library as military base and fighters kept warm in winter by burning books. The rest was ‘sorted out’ under the Taleban.”

(4) The institution was founded in 2002 and “was created at the initiative of the Afghan government with the support of UNESCO to develop the policies and strategies needed to rebuild and modernize the country’s education system.” Meetings brought together “Afghan educators and intellectuals, education experts from other countries, international donors and representatives of other UN agencies.”

(5) Advisors have also sometimes recommended buying books from Iran, which indeed make up a large proportion of the books at Afghan universities. There is however a deep mistrust towards literature from the neighbouring country. “Social sciences literature is ideologically influenced and ‘politicises’,” university professors complain, and for more ‘technical’ courses of studies such as economics “the language is too different and difficult.”

(6) In their paper on “Afghanistan Higher Education: The struggle for quality, merit, and transformation” for the magazine of the Society for College and University Planning (here, January-March 2014), Osman Babory and former USAID higher education advisor Fred Hayward remark that there had been “a lack of interest of donors” to invest in higher education even after the launch of the first strategic plan. They detail the international funding until mid-2013 as follows: 20 million US dollars initial funding by the World Bank, 13 million US dollars by NATO for connecting universities to the internet, eight million US dollars by USAID for construction work at Kabul University, 27 million US dollars through the ARTF, the Afghan Reconstruction Trust Fund, and 2.1 million US dollars by the President’s office for faculty development.

Whether a higher budget could have been spent properly and sustainably by a ministry that still struggles with a lack of capable managers and by partly ill managed universities where corruption is rife, is another question.

(7) UNESCO had already in 2005, in its Ministry of Higher Education Development Plan, warned that “with primary and secondary schools rapidly developing a national universal education program the demand for higher education will soon outrun the spaces available. With universities open again, the gaps are glaring between what could be, what should be, and what is offered.” But still in 2012, Urs Schrade and Michael Daxner wrote in their 2013 paper “Higher Education in Afghanistan – Governance at Stake”, “Higher Education was not placed on the priority list by the Afghan government” for the Tokyo Summit (see here, p 30). The authors also note the “low profile of reforms” between 2005 and 2009 due to a lack of decisive leadership in the ministry.

(8) Although according to ministry officials “any office in the ministry and in universities has been provided with access to the internet,” the reality at Kabul University – the largest in the country – looks different. In many professors’ offices visited, there was no laptop or computer. Countrywide, according to a recent assessment, there is, on average, one computer per 29 students, with the best rates in universities in urban centres and abysmal ones in some rural provinces. As for the speed needed to use advanced tools of research, currently even students working at the Afghanistan Center of Kabul University (ACKU), the institution with probably the best internet on campus, take hours to download a single PDF file from the joint server with the University of Arizona. The institution currently pushes its partner to reduce the file size of the documents on the server to make it workable for Afghan students – or at least the ones in Kabul.

(9) One example is the more than 30 books translated for the economics department of Kabul University by the German university of Bochum. Dean Tingar says the professors are not using them as most of the translations were of “poor” quality. “You need people who speak both German and Pashto or Dari fluently and understand the matter to translate specialised textbooks. This was apparently not the case.” An observer of the matter told AAN that there also seemed to have been a feeling of having been left out of the process and “professors thus not feeling inclined to use these books they don’t know the content of and did not have any part in developing.” Today, the books sit in the library of the faculty, ignored by the professors and thus by the students.

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Thematic Category: Economy & Development