Western universities can play a crucial role in rebuilding war-torn Afghanistan but must make sure they listen to local needs and connect with the government's education plan, said Afghan higher-education officials at a conference here.
The meeting, which was organized by Ball State University and sponsored by Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada and the U.S. State Department, brought together university and government leaders to discuss ways to strengthen ties between North American and Afghan higher-education institutions.
Since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, Afghanistan has sought to rebuild its higher-education system after years of neglect. It has experienced an educational resurgence of sorts, with 24 public universities and 33 private institutions now enrolling some 73,000 students.
However, university administrators from Afghanistan told the 50 or so participants that a lot of work still needs to be done. The threat of violence deters faculty exchanges; university facilities have improved since Taliban rule, but still are in disrepair; and 63.8 percent of professors in the country have only a bachelor's degree.
"Our universities would like to catch up" with the world, said Mir Ghulam Usman Bariz Hossanini, chancellor of Herat University, which serves more than 8,000 students. "The universities can't go on without partners."
Such pleas for help have not gone unheeded.
During the two-day meeting, U.S. and Afghan university officials discussed a half-dozen active partnerships in agriculture, law, distance education, and other areas.
The State Department and its U.S. Agency for International Development have been major financial supporters of many of these. Government officials recommended that universities interested in getting involved in Afghanistan check the Web site of the U.S. embassy in Kabul for various opportunities.
The World Bank has also backed university development projects. For example, it is providing $1.5-million for the University of Hartford to assist Herat University develop its civil-engineering curriculum and train Afghan engineers in Connecticut.
Herat is also developing ties with Purdue University in agriculture, and with San Jose State University to create a journalism program, Mr. Hossanini said.
Occasionally, however, efforts to assist Afghan universities have been misguided.
Ezatullah Amed, chancellor of the Polytechnical University of Kabul, described, through an interpreter, how his university has received laboratory equipment from companies but no training on how to use it. He asked that American universities send staff members to Afghanistan to see firsthand what their Afghan counterparts require.
Trying to Respond to Real Needs
The desire for university officials, as well as international aid agencies and donors, to be more responsive to local needs was echoed throughout the conference.
Americans who have worked in the country say it requires a shift in mentality.
"We in the United States sometimes think we will ride in on our white horses and save the world," said Beth Richards, who teaches writing at the University of Hartford and has helped Herat University build its English-language program.
"Part of my education as a partner is that I have two ears and one mouth. I need to remember those proportions."
M. Osman Babury, Afghanistan's deputy minister of higher education, urged Canadian and American universities to read the national higher-education plan, which was created two years ago, and to find ways to work within it.
Among other goals, the plan seeks to overhaul Afghanistan public universities' curricula in part to make sure that graduates are studying disciplines that will match national needs and fill holes in the labor market.
Sifat Rahimee, an adviser to the minister of education, said that Afghan universities are not producing enough students knowledgeable in areas like electrical engineering, construction, and automobile repair.
"A Pakistani or Iranian is coming to build a building for us," he said. "There is a gap between graduation and employment."
To help with this, the education plan calls for the building of five community colleges at a cost of $26-million.
For Mr. Babury, the most important part of the plan is an effort to set educational standards and enforce them across the country's public and private institutes. "Quality is the main concern of the ministry," he said.
The ministry has proposed the creation of an Afghanistan Quality Assurance and Accreditation Agency. However, the legislation that would establish the agency, as well as make other changes in the higher-education law, has been held up for two years in the Afghan parliament, says Fred M. Hayward, an educational consultant who is advising the higher-education ministry.
One of the hang-ups, he said, is a disagreement among lawmakers on whether the word "university" in the text of the law should be written in Pashto or Dari—a sign of the ethnic tension that pervades the country.
With such political disputes, as well as a myriad of cultural and religious divides, some participants said that while efforts to rebuild Afghan higher education need to move quickly, Western universities should realize the depth of the task facing them.
It's difficult to overstate the level of isolation that Afghan universities faced for many years, said Jonathan A. Eddy, a professor at the University of Washington law school who is helping to develop legal education in Afghanistan.
"It took 30 years for the situation to deteriorate," he said, "and it may take an equal amount of time to rebuild."