Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Education for the Elite

Afghanistan’s first private university opens, but most students find it is beyond their reach.
By Mohammad Jawad
The American University of Afghanistan has recently opened its doors to its first group of students. Eagerly anticipated for its high educational standards and its English-language curriculum, it has nevertheless become something of an irritant to many in the local population.

The annual tuition fees - 5,000 US dollars - puts it far beyond the reach of most college-age Afghans, so students are mainly drawn from the political elite.

Wagma Qanuni is a case in point: she is the daughter of Younus Qanuni, speaker of the lower house of parliament. “I went to school in India and London, so I chose this university for its quality of education,” she said.

The university is located near Darulaman Palace, in the southwest corner of Kabul. The three-storey building is built on six jeribs (12,000 square metres) of land.

Since it opened its doors in late March, it has attracted 48 students, including 16 young women, who are now enrolled in preparatory courses in English language, information communication technology, ICT, and business administration.

In the autumn, the first class of 100 students will be admitted. At present, the university will be able to offer degree programmes in ICT and business administration.

“This university will be one of the best and most progressive universities in the region,” said Sharif Fayez, the university's president. “Students from any country can come and study here.”

The university was built with financial support from the United States and from Afghan businessmen, he added. The United States has pledged 17.7 million dollars, while Afghan businessmen have donated 500,000 dollars.

The university has a 15-member advisory board, of whom 12 are Afghans and three Americans. The board meets twice a year to decide on matters of policy, and develop the academic plan of the university. It also appoints the dean.

The present building is temporary, and will be replaced by a larger complex nearby on land donated by the Afghan government.

But the price tag is a bit steep in a country where most workers earn under 100 dollars a month.

“It is true that paying 5,000 dollars is a large amount,” said Wagma Qanuni. “But if we take into account the facilities and the quality of the education, it is quite reasonable.”

Fayez said this year the university would give scholarships to almost 90 percent of the students. Awards will be based on merit – those who score highest on entrance exams will be given the largest scholarships, which range from 30 to 60 per cent of the tuition fee.

But even with scholarships, the cost of attending the university is very high, compared to the free education offered at national institutions.

Wagma’s classmates tend to be from the relatively well-heeled political elite, such as Nasria Pashtun, daughter of Mohammad Yousuf Pashtun, the minister of urban affairs.

Nasria came to the university because she has trouble with both of Afghanistan’s official languages, Dari and Pashto. Like many of her contemporaries, she spent the war years out of the country.

“I studied in Pakistan and know English very well, so I have come here,” she said. All subjects will be taught in English.

Another student, Ahmad Jawad Murad, is the son of Abdul Satar Murad, the provincial governor of Kapisa, who also said he was drawn by the high quality of the facilities.

Given the high profile of many of its students, the university has put a high premium on security. The campus will be protected by 20 guards, paid by the university. Some of the protective squad will be drawn from former employees of the interior and defence ministries, while others are provided by the Kroll security company. All guards are Afghan.

But the university is not popular with everyone. Some complain that the cost has kept ordinary students from attending.

“This university was built for the sons of ministers, commanders and those who have a lot of money, but not for me,” said Farhad Alizada, who graduated from high school last year. “My father is a government employee and makes 60 dollars a month.”

Jamaluddin, a student at Kabul University, wanted to go to the American University but could not afford the fees. He is bitter that what he calls “the offspring of drug smugglers and warlords” can take advantage of the high-quality facilities that he is denied.

“Their fathers burned our schools during the jihad and war, and made us illiterate,” he said. “But now their sons and daughters study in modern universities.”

Mohammad Jawad Sharifzada is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.