By the time the gates opened at 10 a.m., the crowd had grown almost unmanageable. As if at a rock concert, young men and women thronged Kabul’s historic Babur Garden, jostling their way to the front. But this was no music festival. It was a job fair, and the headline acts the crowd had come to see were representatives of dozens of companies brought together by the organizers, local recruitment firm Capital Jobs, with funding from the U.S. government. Filling the support slots were consultants, offering training in interview skills or tips on writing résumés. Most of the crowd got to see neither, but simply reached over the heads of those in front of them to drop their résumés into a large pile, hoping that somebody would eventually see them.
One of those résumés belonged to a third-year student of business administration at the private Dunya Institute, Ahmad Jawed, in his early 20s. As well as attending classes, Jawed holds down a full-time job as a foreman on road-construction projects. “I come home exhausted at night, with no energy to study,” he says. Still, he fears that with the looming withdrawal of foreign forces, construction projects will dwindle — so he’s banking everything on a private education, which he hopes will land him a steady office job.
Many young Afghans are hoping the same thing. The dramatic rise of private higher education in Afghanistan over the past several years has provided unprecedented opportunities in one of the world’s youngest and least educated nations. Nearly 60,000 students are enrolled at 76 private universities, most of which have opened over the past two or three years. But nobody seems to know what kind of graduates the country needs most, and having graduated many find themselves in a job market mired in economic uncertainty as a result of the foreign withdrawal.
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Afghanistan is a young nation, with an estimated 60% of its population under the age of 20. According to the Ministry of Education, 320,000 students will graduate from high school in 2013. But most of them will not find a seat at government universities, where the capacity seems to have peaked at 40,000 new enrollments. Last year, the government universities could only admit 25% of the 170,000 graduates who participated in the entrance exam.
Until just a few years ago, the unlucky applicants had three options: they could re-sit the exam the following year, seek education opportunities abroad or simply give up. Sensing a golden opportunity, private-education companies sprung up. The pioneer was Kardan, which established a center for short-term foreign-language and business courses in 2002, with an initial investment of just $300. In 2007, Kardan became the first licensed private higher-education institute in Afghanistan. Today, the institute, divided between two campuses, is a multimillion-dollar business, with 6,000 students studying toward degrees in fields such as business administration, political science and economics. Most of the instructors have master’s degrees from abroad, having taken advantage of the scholarship opportunities provided by the international community over the past decade. The students pay fees of around $130 a month, and among them are MPs, deputy ministers and other politicians, attending evening classes to complete educations disrupted by war or to simply better prepare themselves for a postwithdrawal economy. As the end of class nears, the campus is a sea of waiting bodyguards and SUVs.
Those who can afford it opt for private institutes because the standards at government universities are low. “Our universities are a disaster — they don’t even meet the standards of 1960s,” a senior government official recently admitted to TIME. Ilham Gharji, chancellor of the private Gawharshad University, accuses the state-run establishments of using “lecture notes that their professors inherited from their own professors years back, some as old as 30 years.” Located in the west of Kabul, Gawharshad will graduate its founding class next year. It charges its students about $300 per five-month semester, with a 20% discount for female students. (Among its students are several female members of the Afghan Special Forces).
On the other hand, the quality of the new institutions is mixed. A recent government assessment found that none of the universities assessed met the stipulated criteria for “excellent.” Only 14 were considered “good,” 42 “satisfactory” with 14 found to be “weak” and put on a two-month probation. The identikit courses offered by private universities are also thought to be a problem. The job market is flooded with large numbers of graduates in law or economics, with seemingly little thought for the actual needs of the Afghan economy.
“What is offered is not in accordance with our market needs,” says Massoud Trishtwal, the director general of private higher-education institutes at the Ministry of Higher Education, who points out that none of the 76 private establishments offer courses in agriculture. “We don’t need agricultural experts in this country?” he asks, sardonically. “It’s one of our most urgent needs.”
Mahmoud Dastagir, the deputy chancellor of Kardan, believes the institutes will be forced to improve. “The whole experience of our private sector in higher education is just five to six years,” he says. “Market competition will naturally better the quality.”
Gawharshad’s Gharji concedes that the boom in private higher education is bringing with it tremendous risks. “The rate of employment after graduation, both from public and private universities, is extremely low — hardly 10% get a job within a year after graduation,” he says. “Security-wise, when the numbers grow, this will translate ultimately into social unrest. A million young, educated Afghans with no jobs will be disaster in terms of security and development.” As the thousands of young students at the Kardan job fair know, the road ahead is already looking long, hard and exhausting.