Afghan universities struggling for funding

Fraidoon Alkozai, chairman of Kabul University's civil engineering department, in a decrepit hallway at the engineering school that is strapped financially as international donors focus their efforts elsewhere.
Fraidoon Alkozai, chairman of Kabul University's civil engineering department, in a decrepit hallway at the engineering school that is strapped financially as international donors focus their efforts elsewhere. (Josh Boak)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 13, 2011

KABUL - Already coping with war, poverty and corruption, Afghan colleges are struggling under a policy that forbids them from charging tuition.

The law also restricts public universities from having endowments, leaving the schools dependent on an Afghan government and U.S.-led coalition largely focused on confronting the Taliban.

"Security is a priority," said A. Quadir Amiryar, senior adviser to the Ministry of Higher Education. "Higher education is a luxury, given the configuration of the government."

With limited funds, the universities cannot graduate the needed supply of civil servants and engineers who can keep new roads paved and power plants humming, said Afghan officials, academics and development experts. All 22 public universities and education institutes operated on a combined $35 million last year, which represents about 1.5 percent of the Afghan government's core budget.

Separate funds come from outside the Afghan bureaucracy, most notably through the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has paid for the construction of dormitories and teacher training.

In its budget request for this year, USAID asked for $249 million to cover higher-education projects worldwide, including $20 million for Afghanistan. The greatest share of the request, $70 million, was for Pakistan.

The agency spends close to $3 billion a year in Afghanistan. It has financed projects for health care, farming and infrastructure, all of which can have a broader and more immediate impact than bolstering universities.

"We're at the level we think we can provide in terms of a balance of our priorities," said a USAID official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending the Afghan partners.

The official noted that fewer than half of Afghan professors have a master's degree or doctorate, suggesting that additional money might not help schools that have yet to meet international standards.

As part of a fraud investigation, USAID recently suspended its lead contractor, the Academy for Educational Development, on a project to improve professors' classroom skills. The project closed down as scheduled Jan. 31, though the agency said it is looking for ways to keep things "moving forward."

Critics said that not investing earlier and more aggressively in universities has prolonged a reliance on international consultants. The first major higher-education projects by USAID and the World Bank began about two years into the war.

"If we had started programs in 2002, there would be a lot of Afghans who could be doing the work of foreign contractors," said Edward Friedman, who directed a Cold War-era USAID program that established an engineering school at Kabul University.

The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan caused faculty and students at that school to find refuge abroad. Some now hold prominent academic positions at Kansas State, Ohio and Purdue universities.

Access to a college education could surface as a broader security issue that overlaps with President Obama's 2014 deadline for ending the U.S. combat mission.

About 600,000 Afghans are expected to graduate from high school that year, many of them without avenues for employment or further studies, according to the Ministry of Higher Education. Out of frustration, they may join factions of the Taliban, a concern that has been shared with the U.S. government, according to Afghan officials and a former staff member of the U.S. National Security Council.

"We hope that's not the case, but it's a logical consequence," said Amiryar, who advises the higher-education ministry.

During a recent visit to Kabul University's engineering school, cobwebs blackened by dust hung across the ceiling. Broken equipment sat in bare labs. The most visible sign of foreign assistance was a room of desktop computers.

Fraidoon Alkozai, chairman of the civil engineering department, knocked on the door of his colleagues' shared office but no one answered. He said they were probably away working second jobs for aid organizations and contractors at eight times their monthly teaching salary of $400.

One alternative would be private universities that can charge tuition, but those schools can be prohibitively expensive in a country where the average yearly income approaches $800.

It costs $5,500 a year to attend the American University of Afghanistan, which was founded in part with grants from USAID. About 70 percent of the students receive some form of financial aid.

A November report by the USAID inspector general called the "financial sustainability" of that university "questionable." The school is embarking on an $80 million fundraising campaign, said its president, C. Michael Smith.

The university's emphasis on teaching business management and accounting is critical for Afghanistan's future, Smith said.

"When we started the program, we were told there was one certified accountant who was Afghan," Smith said. "Here you've got a country where corruption is talked about a lot. You've got to have trained accountants."

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