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Afghan Education Not Making The Grade

Students who failed in university entry exams gather outside Afghanistan's Higher Education Ministry to protest. (file photo)
Afghan education officials have found themselves embroiled in controversy after a record number of students failed in national university entry exams last week.

Afghan students accuse the Higher Education Ministry, which determines university placement, of fraud and discrimination, insisting that as many as 60,000 of them failed purely on the basis of their ethnicity and mother language.

Many say the majority of the students who failed come from the country's south and east, a tribal region dominated by Pashtuns.

Unlike many of the country's other ethnicities who speak Dari, a Persian dialect, the Pashtuns speak their own language, Pashto.

Students from rural areas claim that they received sufficient grades to pass but have been failed by examiners, who have refused to explain their reasons or marking criteria.

Others students are adamant that their test scores were higher than some students in urban centers who were granted university places -- leading to allegations of special treatment and corruption.

"Everybody that participates in an exam hopes to pass," says Nilufar, a female student from southern Ghazni Province. "But the chance of passing [this exam] is very low. There's no way we can pass because those people that will pass have already been determined. It's completely unfair."

Calls For Investigation

Irfanullah Irfan, a member of parliament from Kabul, claims that this year's entrance examination was not transparent and has urged the Education Ministry to investigate the process.

His remarks come after hundreds of students across the country marched the streets in protest against what they say are rigged exam results.

"Every day dozens of students are visiting the homes of parliamentarians," Irfan says. They are trying to address their own concerns as well as those of parliamentarians. The education and higher education ministries must address this uncertainty, otherwise these incidents will continue."

Figures released by the Higher Education Ministry reveal that of the 150,000 students who participated in university entrance exams only 40,000 succeeded in gaining offers from universities or institutions of higher learning.

Shukria Barakzai, a prominent female parliamentarian from Kabul, says the education system in the country is heavily weighed against students living in rural and tribal areas, which lack the resources and opportunities found in urban centers like the capital.
Afghan parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai
Afghan parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai

Barakzai proposes a system where each of Afghanistan's 34 provinces is allocated a specific number of university slots, which she believes will ensure equal opportunities for disadvantaged students living in rural areas. But she is not optimistic.

"My main concern is with the policies and actions of the education ministries regarding the national entrance exams," she says.

"As a parliamentarian from Kabul, I can tell you that we don't give anybody the right to create a specific [lower] threshold for Kabul."

Higher Education Minister Obaidullah Obaid has rebuffed the allegations. He says the ministry has established a complaints commission to listen to and file complaints over the entrance exams.

Balancing Capacity And Quality

Obaid says the main reason for the poor showing from students in the south and east is due to the insecurity that has seen hundreds of schools closed, and the cultural conservatism that has led to the nonparticipation of thousands of female students.

He concedes that the education system is flawed but insists that longstanding issues cannot be resolved overnight.

"Our main goal in these exams is trying to find a balance between capacity and quality," he says. "For example, it's very difficult to try and fit two kilograms of something into something that can only hold one kilogram. What I have repeatedly said many times is that we cannot just fix all problems surrounding education in one or two days. We have inherited many problems from the past."

The shortfalls in secondary school education have been compounded by the lack of higher-education institutions, which have been unable to accommodate the growing number of university applicants.

In fact, of the 90,000 students that passed the university entry exams this year, only 40,000 have been awarded university places.

To tackle the shortage, Afghan Education Minister Farooq Wardak announced this week that his ministry will raise its capacity in order to absorb over 70,000 students in its 163 semi-higher education institutions, which provide technical and teaching training.

It is hoped that the institutions can address the country's chronic unemployment, raise the number of skilled Afghan workers, and provide job opportunities for the hundreds of thousands of students who have completed school but have been unable to advance to higher education.

With additional reporting by Radio Free Afghanistan
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.