Herat University is emerging again as a centre for higher learning in western Afghanistan. Like many educational institutions trying to recover recently, the university, its student body and faculty suffered heavily under the hardline Taliban.
Seyyed Qasim, a first-year law student, works as a cashier in a local shop, supporting his eight-member family and continuing his studies. "I want to become a lawyer and help in establishing the rule of law," he told IRIN. His dream sounds ambitious in a country where law courts hardly function after decades of devastating war and five years of hard line Taliban rule.
Having never left his native city, Herat, Qasim now hopes that this time round peace will finally prevail. "We hope that the reconstruction of our country takes place," the 24-year-old said. Another 3,100 students, including more than 700 women, on the campus share his hopes and enthusiasm for education. Qasim, like his peers, lost many precious academic years to the county’s volatile politics.
Established in 1986, Herat University has nine functional faculties, comprising medicine, engineering, law, agriculture, fine arts, humanities, Shar'iah (Islamic law), education and economics. Located in many hired houses joined together opposite a tranquil city park in a quiet neighbourhood, bright-eyed and curious students throng to the small classrooms.
One of 16 institutions of higher learning in Afghanistan, Herat University now hopes to recover after years of trauma. Kabul University is the largest such institution in the country, and universities also exist in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, Kandahar in the south and Mazar-e Sharif in the north. Meanwhile, the university in Herat is performing well given the fact that it barely existed under the Taliban only a few months ago.
"We have no campus of our own, and it’s the major problem we are facing," the university’s middle-aged vice chancellor, Abdul Rauf, told IRIN. But the other challenges the university faces are far greater: it needs everything - teachers, computers, books and laboratories. Moreover, many of the 124 teachers employed by it lack the qualifications they would need to teach anywhere else in the world.
"All the foreign aid goes to Kabul University. We receive little assistance from the ministry of higher education," he said. However, Herat’s controversial governor and well-known warlord Ismail Khan reportedly helps to meet most of the institution's expenses. The city was as oasis of relative peace under his rule during the post-1992 period of anarchy in the country. Nonetheless, wages for faculty members remain low, with most receiving as little as US $50 a month.
Herat University follows the curriculum laid down by the ministry of higher education in Kabul, but students maintain more changes are needed. "It will be too much to expect research here, but we are on our road to recovery," Abdul Rahman Mansuri, the university’s deputy vice chancellor, told IRIN.
With 17 female teachers and its hundreds of female students, the university is also a testament to the fast pace at which Afghans are shedding the legacies of their former Taliban rulers, effectively banned all education for women in the country for more than five years.
"It’s like being released from six years of imprisonment," a female law student, Zarlasht, told IRIN. Most of her more than 30 female classmates went into exile in neighbouring Iran after Taliban took over. Zarlasht, however, stayed back and lost years to the Taliban.
But most of the female students still wear the all-enveloping chador out of respect for tradition. Although they share the same premises, male and female students study in separate classrooms.
"Taliban was a dark period in our history and we now expect better things," Mansuri said.
Meanwhile, Dr Akbar Popal, the vice chancellor of Kabul University is touring Britain, seeking much-needed support for the reconstruction of his country’s higher education facilities. The British Council is likely to set up an English language resource centre in Kabul, which would help academics obtain more information from the Internet.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions