Afghan University Poll Angers Officials

Balkh governor demands legal action after NGO survey reveals criticism of teaching standards.

Afghan University Poll Angers Officials

Balkh governor demands legal action after NGO survey reveals criticism of teaching standards.

An opinion poll has sparked controversy by revealing criticism of lecturers at northern Afghanistan’s Balkh University, and the provincial governor has called for those behind the survey to be prosecuted.

The Civil Society and Human Rights Network, a coalition of rights groups, and the Future for Afghanistan Children Organisation, polled 150 students across different year-groups at the university.

Some 58 per cent responded that they were unsatisfied with the way their lecturers treated them, while 70 per cent claimed teaching staff behaved in an irresponsible manner. Just over half accused lecturers of discriminatory behaviour and one-fifth alleged that they took bribes.

The results incurred the wrath of provincial governor Atta Mohammad Nur, who on June 1 described the survey as “poisonous propaganda”, and called for those responsible to be prosecuted. He even likened it to Taleban attacks on educational institutions.

“One group in this country torches schools so that our children can’t study,” he said in a reference to the insurgents. “Others launch poisonous propaganda in the name of this or that institution and defame educational institutions in the eyes of the people so as to deprive the country’s children – particularly girls – of an education.”

Directors of the provincial justice, education, and information and culture department attended a meeting where the judiciary was instructed to summon those behind the survey for interrogation.

Hakim Alipur, one of the poll’s organisers, said he was surprised that the survey had drawn such a hostile reaction, and said the aim was to contribute to reforms.

“Our opinion poll is [the kind] accepted as a civic process in democratic societies,” he said. “It was conducted in good faith and respected the opinions of those who were surveyed.”

Balkh University was established in 1988 in the provincial capital Mazar-e Sharif and offers courses in engineering, economics, medicine, agriculture and education, law and politics.

As the poll group accounted for only about 1.5 per cent of the total student body, it is unclear whether it reflected the views of the wider student body. However, it was roughly in line with the overall gender split – about 27 per cent of the 9,800 students are female.

Some students planned a large-scale protest against the findings, but university officials organised a smaller gathering in the campus’ main hall instead.

Nurullah Mohseni, director of the university’s faculty of law and politics, said the NGOs had not provided convincing proof to support the students’ opinions. He also questioned whether they had the academic credentials to scrutinise a university.

“No one is entitled to defame an academic institution where 10,000 students are studying without providing any convincing reasons or proof,” he said. “Why have individuals who lack academic standing and authority done so?”

At a press conference to explain the thinking behind the survey, Manuchehr Ibrahimi, director of the Future for Afghanistan Children Organisation, argued that the results reflected real and widespread problems.

The survey aimed to give the public an insight into teaching, management and other issues at the university, he said.

“Our opinion poll was conducted in accordance with internationally-accepted academic principles and our goal in launching the process was to reveal weaknesses and defects and to address problems that young people faced in education,” he told reporters. “The opinion poll consisted of eight main questions... [and the answers] indicated that numerous problems exist at Balkh University and that students suffer as a result.”

Another NGO worker involved in the poll, Nasima Azakia, head of the Civil Society and Human Rights Network in Balkh, could not be reached for comment.

Colleagues said she was in The Netherlands on a pre-arranged trip. But one neighbour said on condition of anonymity that Azakia was in hiding for fear that she would be attacked or imprisoned.

Maria Rahin, a journalism lecturer, conceded that there were problems with educational facilities at the university. However, she questioned the survey’s methodology and disputed in particular its claims about lecturers’ supposed laxity.

Whether or not the survey results reflect the views of most students, several students IWPR that they recognised the concerns that were raised.

Sitting with three friends beneath the shade of a tree on campus, one student claimed that staff were appointed because of personal and family connections rather than academic merit.

“All that’s been said about the lecturers is true,” the student said on condition of anonymity, before alleging that the survey only revealed a small proportion of the problems. “The situation is far worse,” he said. “We don’t know who’s going to reform all this corruption and arbitrary decision making.”

Another student originally from the western province of Herat described how it took him a month to get accepted into a dormitory. He was only given a bed after paying a bribe of 100 US dollars.

“I hope the university lecturers and officials will feel a bit ashamed after the opinion poll is published and start some reforms,” he said.

The Asr-e Naw newspaper published the poll’s findings, and editor-in-chief Sayed Ishaq Shojai said he believed they painted an honest picture of the university’s inner workings.

He said corruption across government and non-government bodies was an accepted fact of life.

“In my opinion, the polls’ findings reflect existing, obvious realities. We published them as a matter of duty, to ensure that one of our biggest and most important academic institutions will be reformed,” he said.

Azim Resalat, broadcast director at Radio Killid in Balkh, helped compile the survey and said he was prepared to defend it in court.

“We performed our duty responsibly. If it reflects the truth, they should try to reform their activities. If it is not true, we are prepared to use the documentary evidence we have to hand and answer before any court that has the authority to deal with the matter,” he said.

Qayum Babak is an IWPR-trained reporter in Balkh province.

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