4 November 2021
The regime change that occurred in Afghanistan in August 2021 has had a significant impact on many aspects of life in the country, especially its higher education institutions (HEIs) and its vocational education and training (VET) sector. The international community has discussed a number of initiatives and various measures that should help to address emerging challenges in the short and long terms. One issue of particular concern, however, is women’s access to higher education. Some argue that the entire higher education and VET sector in Afghanistan is under threat due to possible mass closures, restrictions and censorship. Others claim that the situation is more nuanced and that there may be many avenues for effective action to meet challenges to education in the country.
Education in Afghanistan: Achievements and Challenges
During the past decade, a large cohort of young students emerged in Afghanistan as the former Government in Kabul and many international agencies devoted a great deal of attention to formulating and supporting national educational policies. This entailed not only the reopening of many government-funded universities and various other educational institutions, but also allowed for private and public initiatives, and the opening of more than 60 private higher education institutions and VET colleges and schools. The city of Kabul alone hosted more than a dozen universities and VET colleges and was home to some 100,000–120,000 students in 2018, up from about 4,000 in 2001.1 In addition, about 17,000 Afghan students (2016, UNESCO) were studying at universities in neighboring countries,2 including Central Asian or so-called Silk Way countries, such as Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and others.
Over the past few years, the former Government of Afghanistan also formulated broader youth policies aimed at promoting hard skills, the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), and better technical education among young people. National and local authorities and representatives of international organizations, especially the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN-Women), worked jointly to develop specific measures for encouraging women to pursue educational opportunities both within and outside Afghanistan. Prior to the 2001–2002 period, women’s access to any form of education was extremely limited.
The growth of HEIs and VET colleges went hand-in-hand with the implementation of many women-oriented programmes, such as the National Higher Education Strategic Plan, the National Action Plan for Women in Afghanistan and the Higher Education Gender Strategy. Measures included direct financial support through grants and stipends to young woman, as well as internationally funded initiatives to support women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, as the country needed more educated and energetic local professional women and men for its growing economy. Altogether, these efforts bore fruit, as the number of female students grew from about 3 per cent of all students in 2002 up to 22 per cent in 2016, with the Government projecting a 25 per cent female share of enrolment by 2020, according to official estimates.3 An important achievement involved training a new generation of female HEI faculty members following a decline from about 2,000 in 1989 to almost zero in 2001. In 2003–2004, Afghan universities hired the first female lecturers, and in 2020, their number had grown to about 18–20 per cent of the total. Young women also became active in initiatives promoted by the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) in Afghanistan, such as the Model UN New Silk Way. They learned soft skills in international diplomacy, conflict mitigation and resolution, reconciliation and public debate. According to local estimates, Model UN events involved between 1,500 and 3,000 young people annually in various activities offline4 and reached about 20,000–30,000 students online.5
The Role of HEI in Modern Development
The past decade provided relative stability for a new generation of Afghan citizens, 63 per cent of whom were under 25 years of age, according to 2018 UNFPA estimates. They received a better education, including acquiring skills and competencies for developing the national economy. The emergence and rapid growth of educated and technologically competent youth in Afghanistan—the number of students in Afghan HEIs doubled every 5–7 years—although starting from a small baseline, had a significant and positive short- and long-term impact on building a peaceful society. The trend also advanced the creation of job opportunities for young Afghans and contributed to the flourishing of thousands of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in large cities, such as Kabul, Herat and Kandahar.
In this context, the development of modern information and communications technology (ICT) was crucial for building a better future for Afghanistan. Citizens in all large cities had access to reliable Internet networks. In recent years, local and international stakeholders invested in the digitalization of the education sector, including the development of online courses and programmes, digital libraries, and the creation of online content. Local TV stations, such as Tolo News, broadcast hundreds of hours of educational and popular science programmes. This development had many widespread implications across the country.
Digitalization Could Be Key to the Future Development of Higher Education in Afghanistan
Despite numerous challenges and obstacles, which are far greater now than prior to the events of August 2021, there are still many ways for the international community to help education move forward in Afghanistan. One scenario involves continued support of the digitalization of higher education and students’ access to digital technologies. Digital transformation in higher education would help deal with temporary interruptions in educational processes at universities and VET institutions across the country. International educational organizations should help the country to develop trustworthy and widely accepted digital platforms where youth, students and young professionals, especially women and girls, can enhance their knowledge, and improve skills and competencies for the further development of their country; and search for industrial growth, technological transfers and soft skills in international diplomacy and reconciliation. In addition, digital transformation in higher education—especially by connecting Afghan educators to global online learning initiatives—would allow for the creation of a relatively safe and effective avenue for employment in the education sector for Afghan teachers in general and women in particular.
The recent developments in Afghanistan have created many uncertainties for the educational sector, especially for its community of nearly 150,000 university students. Many experts highlight that it is unclear how the development of the sector, especially higher education, will unfold in the near future and what kind of impacts to expect in the longer term.6
Yet digital transformation in higher education in Afghanistan, especially with help from international community, could be instrumental in creating a cyber environment for education and accessing the latest information technologies, mobile applications, innovative online educational platforms and the best digital online learning (DOL) tools. It is difficult to predict the future of higher education for staff members and educators in Afghanistan in general, and for female university students and faculty in particular. However, these and many other challenges also create an opportunity to look at the development of higher education from different angles, especially with regard to the use of new ICTs and digitalization.
1Interviews conducted by the author during his mission to Kabul in 2018. See also Rafis Abazov, " 'Modeling' peace on the Great Silk Road", The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst (5 April 2019). Available at https://www.cacianalyst.org/publications/analytical-articles/item/13567-modeling-peace-on-the-great-silk-road.html.
2"Education in Afghanistan", WES: World Education, News, Reviews, 6 September 2016. Available at https://wenr.wes.org/2016/09/education-afghanistan.
3Fred M. Hayward, “Progress on gender equity in Afghan higher education”, University World News, 13 January 2017. Available at https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20170111130351745.
4Rafis Abazov, "'Modeling' Peace on the Great Silk Road".
5Unpublished reports on the Model UN New Silk Way activities in 2017-2018.
6 See for example: Fred M. Hayward, “The Tragedy of Afghanistan today”, University World News, 15 September 2021. Available at https://www.universityworldnews.com/post.php?story=20210914164202117.
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