Higher education and a decade of courage | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 25.03.2014
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Higher education and a decade of courage

When it comes to the West's engagement in Afghanistan, the field of education is a success. German organizations have played a large role. They're hoping for more time - and aren't necessarily worried about the Taliban.

"In 2001, there were some 4,000 students enroled in Afghan universities, none of them women. Over the past decade, that number has jumped to more than 80,000 at 26 public universities," says Alexander Kupfer, director of the German Academic Exchange Service's (DAAD) higher education program for Afghanistan.

"That's a tremendous development," he said. Today, women represent twenty percent of the country's students and faculty members. What's happening in Afghanistan is a radical social and historical change, Kupfer says, one which can only be compared to the industrial revolution in Europe - within reason, of course.

"The expectation that Afghanistan could reach development levels like in Europe within just a few years is completely absurd," he told DW. "This is the work of generations."

Two Afghan women wearing colorful headscarves lean over their desks while studying.

Doing what their mothers couldn't

A decades-long wish list

The next ten years constitute a "transformation decade," Kupfer says. What can realistically be achieved during that period is the further support of qualifications such as bachelor's and master's degrees.

"For the former, you need a sufficient number of lecturers with master's degrees," he says, "for the latter, PhDs. In the next ten years that can largely be achieved."

The DAAD has provided academic support to 3,000 Afghans and another 3,000 higher education faculty members through measures such as IT support. Asim Noorbakhsch, a spokesperson for Afghanistan's Ministry of Higher Education, told DW that, "In the past twelve years, Afghanistan, with the help of its friend, Germany, has achieved much in the field of education." One thing he wishes for in the future is for more Afghan students to obtain their PhDs in Germany and then return home.

It's something DAAD welcomes with open arms. "We want to increase the number of master's and PhD scholarships significantly," Kupfer says.

That said, the organization does not want Afghan students confined to the ivory tower of academia. "We're talking about the subject of competence centers with our Afghan partners and German universities. We have the labor market in view, and are examining how companies operating in local areas can be involved in the dialogue." However, that remains a vision of the future.

University bottleneck

Another area of focus for both countries is the promotion of distance learning. The Ruhr University of Bochum in western Germany has already developed an "E-Campus" for Afghan users. Distance learning, Kupfer says, could absorb a part of the growing applicant pool for scarce upper education slots. Of the 140,000 applicants who passed the government's 2012 entrance examination, just 41,000 received a place to study.

Afghan youths working in a bazaar

An apprentice, or a failed child?

And more students are expected to follow as nearly half of Afghanistan's population is 15 years or younger. "The number of high-school graduates clamouring for a university spot is a huge problem, like a tidal wave that keeps building and that'll have to hit at some point, and you have to be ready for that point," Kupfer says. The expert adds that "even with the best equipment," it won't be possible to cope with the flood.

Wanted: vocational education

Kupfer says a change in values is needed in order to solve this problem and to prevent the mass frustration of potential students. "There are certain occupations such as physician that are associated with social prestige. And that's what everyone wants to study. While that leads to high demand for medical schools, "No one wants to work in assisted care." As for the "huge shortage of skilled workers in Afghanistan," Kupfer says it's a question of vocational training.

From Germany's end, the German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ) is responsible for vocational training in Afghanistan. Gustav Reier, the organization's expert in Kabul, confirms Kupfer's assessment that, while Afghanistan has already made huge strides and has great prospects of success, it still has much to do.

"Not long ago we did an inventory of the 50 vocational schools in Afghanistan that are in our program," he told DW. "To our surprise, we found out that there were quite a number of new school buildings, or at least under construction, that we have nothing to do with at all."

The German Gustav Reier stands amongst Afghan colleagues in a room.

The GIZ's Gustav Reier (middle) at an education fair in Kabul

Long-term thinking

Like Kupfer, Reier emphasizes the need to think long-term. "We're looking at a span of 20 to 30 years for the vocational educational system to become comprehensive," he says. Each year, the GIZ's educational centers in Kabul and Masar-i-Scharif certify between 300 and 500 new vocational teachers.

Still, the demand is massive. Of the roughly 1.7 million youths at vocational training age (15-19), just 70,000 have a spot in the country's vocational education system.

For Reier, that's no grounds for complaint, though. "The informal economy in Afghanistan is highly interesting," he said. "There's a functioning apprenticeship program like in Germany in the 19th century. Economic life buzzes when you drive through the country."

It's this informal structure which the GIZ would like to build upon to better institutionalize modern vocational training.

Reason for optimism

Reier's recipe for success? "That we empower Afghans to carry out teacher training themselves." And as for the support of women through education, Reier says, Afghan women tend to be interested in the fields of sales, linguistics and IT, "just like in Germany."

And what about securityor a potential return of the Taliban times? Reier's relatively unconcerned.

"We were here before the [German military], and we're going on the assumption that we'll be working here after 2014 as well," he says, referring to the upcoming German troop withdrawal. Additionally, he argues, "people will defend themselves" against a recurrence of Taliban-like conditions.

Aghanistan Herat Stadt

Reier says Afghans have learned from the Taliban's failures

His direct contact in Kabul's government is "conservative, but highly analytical, and he drives things forward. And the people who live in municipal areas, who I'm involved with, they sense what [the Taliban] failed to do over the last 30 years."

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