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Dr. Sharif Faez, Minister of Higher Education (August 12, 2004)
Can you speak about the condition of higher education when you started two years ago, and compare it to today?
Before the interim government was established, there was, in fact, no higher education. A few institutions were open for special purposes: medicine, agriculture. As you know, no women, no girls were allowed to attend these institutions. Some estimates say that about 4,000 students were attending higher education institutions during the Taliban. I would say 80% of the curriculum used during that time was based on religion, on theological matters.
When we took over, we started with about 20,000 students â€“ thus the number increased from 4,000 to 20,000. All women graduating from high school were allowed to enter, and this was quite a privilege for women. Now we have 40,000 students. About four institutions were operational during the Taliban time, whereas now we have eighteen. The challenges we have been facing are lack of infrastructure and of qualified teachers. In Afghanistan we have a really major problem, because the vast majority of our teachers, close to 1,000, have only a bachelor's degree or a master's degree.
How can education contribute to the development of a new political culture in Afghanistan, and how do you stay away from the polarization of the past?
Politics in our country have been used to divide the people. Politics have been associated with ethnicity, religion, language, political groups, violence, power, greed, discrimination. We have tried to preach against, and have always opposed, that sort of politics. But political ideas, political dialogue, and politics as it is in other parts of the world, such as in Europe â€“ we have encouraged our students to establish such dialogue. We support political discourse; [it is] political action, which often results in violence, we have been against. We have been against those who want to turn our institutions into their podiums, into their puppets, preaching their own ideologies. Those who have been trying to use higher education for their own purpose seem to have got the message, and they have stayed from interference.
Higher education enrolment increased from 4,000 to 40,000. What mechanism do you have in place to make sure that this dramatic increase doesn't compromise academic excellence, particularly given the budget constraints and the limited amount of teachers?
This is a very good question. Next year, about 6 million students will be receiving primary and secondary education in Afghanistan. Each year about 500,000 students will graduate from schools in Afghanistan, and the number is increasing. It may soon be 600,000 students. But our institution, with its small budget, will not be ready to absorb more than 10,000 students, a very small number. So unless new campuses are built, unless our existing institutions are expanded physically with new structures, it seems to me that higher education will not suffer qualitatively, only quantitatively.
However, we have taken some steps. There are four regional universities in Afghanistan â€“ Mazar-e Sharif, Herat, Kandahar and Nangarhar. Three of them will have new campuses. A new university is being built in each Herat, Kandahar and Mazar-e Sharif. Nangarhar Province has a university, has a beautiful campus. So these four regional universities, we hope â€“ and it's a long term project â€“ will have new campuses. In three years, each regional university should have the capacity and also the competence to absorb about 10,000 students. Altogether, we expect 40,000 students in four key provinces which are geographically and ethnically balanced. And about 20,000 students are concentrated in Kabul, a number we hope will also increase.
If these projects are implemented, in three or four years the number of students in higher education will reach between 70,000 and 80,000 students. This is our strategic plan for the future. Training academic staff will be the biggest problem. Within the next three years, how many qualified teachers will we be able to train? We have about 15, perhaps more, students here in Japan. We have a number of students in the United States, a number in Germany, in Turkey and many other countries. If these students come back to Afghanistan with master's degrees and PhDs, I think we will be able to meet some of the challenges we are facing.
What do you see as the most urgent priority today?
Providing scholarships for Afghans students, that's really a priority.
Secondly, when it comes to infrastructure, we have established a new university called Education University, which is extremely important. This university will lead modernization of the education system in Afghanistan. It will train not only teachers but also counsellors, advisors, principals, curriculum developers, and will be a resource center for education in the country.
Thirdly, Kabul Medical University has close to 4,000 students, but does not have access to a teaching hospital. Without a teaching hospital, you really should not have a medical university. We do have hospitals in Kabul, but they are not research hospitals run by a university, they are run by the Public Health Ministry. It's a different type of management, you really need a research hospital for this city, and we don't have one. We are not going to sign diplomas for doctors who are going to practice medicine in Afghanistan without having been exposed to practicing in a hospital.
Also, lab equipment is also important. Next year the equipment from Japan will be available for our institutions in Kabul. But the provinces won't have equipment. The Japanese government, next year, will also provide funds for lab equipment for our institutions in the provinces, and this is very important I think.
Another priority is building dorms for girls in the provinces. Building four women's dormitories at the four regional universities in Afghanistan will provide opportunities for women to continue their education. In terms of human rights, I think it's very important that higher education should have balance â€“ gender balance, ethnic balance, social justice.