Higher education in Taliban’s Afghanistan


The unexpected ban of secondary school education of girls by the Taliban authority was condemned by the international community. Professor Michael Daxner, who has been actively involved in the higher education sector in Afghanistan for the last several years, gives an overview of challenges currently faced.

Education in Afghanistan

The unexpected and sudden ban of secondary school education of girls on 23 March 2022 by the Taliban authority was condemned by the international community and will massively impede further economic assistance and a possible engagement with the regime. This decision further questions the reliability and internal decision-making processes of the Taliban authority. As such, the higher education (HE) sector in the strife-torn country has already been impacted by the regime change as many researchers and scholars have left the country and there seems to be less expertise and political will to uphold achievements of the last 20 years.

Authoritarian regimes are learning fast that without a higher education system functional at the core, their rule will be weakened (Michael Daxner)

Professor Michael Daxner, who has been actively involved in the higher education sector in Afghanistan for the last several years, speaks extensively to Sarah Weiss about the problem. He gives an overview of challenges currently faced and shares recommendations about how the international community could continue to support the higher education sector in Afghanistan. Excerpts from the interview:

Sarah Weiss: Prof. Daxner, you have been involved in the field/ sector of higher education in Afghanistan for many years. Since the power overtaken through the Taliban regime in August 2021, it is especially the understanding/ definition of “education” and the right to education that is being critically discussed at international and local levels. To your observation, what are the main arguments/ points raised in this discussion and by which stakeholders?

Michael Daxner: Things are in a flow now. We have a considerate policy by the main actors in the Taliban government - say, pragmatically rigid policy, no real foreign intervention into the system, but certain openness to financial support. I am not sure whether this is a consolidated mainstream policy. In any way, some disciplines are still in real danger, mainly the arts, history and such sciences that are prone to critique of religion and the system. Obviously, the orthodox Islamistic wing of the Taliban has gained ground in an internal controversy.

In the latter field, I observe many attempts to leave the country and to escape the oppression. However, many persons are still hiding and it is difficult to directly reach them.

What were the main achievements in the higher education system in Afghanistan in the last 20 years? How are these achievements at stake now that the Taliban have taken over?

Well, since my first arrival in 2003, there have been quantitative achievements at large, many more students, and many more private higher education institutions, some of them under the protection of the state. Student figures rose from 37.000 to more than 120,000 within the first 10 years. This is interesting insofar, as many “new” students, many women among them, and returnees from abroad now attend higher education. But, on the other side, many institutions have not reached the minimum standards of higher education. Content-wise, the review is mixed. In quite a few established disciplines and in areas with strong international cooperation, there has been remarkable progress. However, humanities, social sciences and areas like law or medicine have been either neglected or suffered from internal controversies between those who had stayed in the country since the 1990s and the returnees, mainly from the West. Medicine has been extremely interesting. Religious and ideological impact on “real” studies brought much progress in areas like anatomy, the inspection of the (female) body, and the medical treatment of persons at risk. There was progress, however, in many cases countered by traditional groups and, of course, by unqualified male faculty.

The returnees imported not on only up-to-date qualification. They aspired to get positions that had been occupied after the Soviet intervention and the takeover by Mujahideen. It was extremely difficult to get them lawful support, because the legislation in higher education was not yet reformed.

Certainly, stronger participation of female academics and students can be observed. And there have been always “islands” of good performance. And there is a big problem, both in the field of accession to and examinations in the public institutions of higher education: Corrupt or inefficient, or both disqualifications devaluate fields, where there had been some progress. This is a wide field of controversy.

Nowadays, there is a danger of narrowing the intellectual access to sensible disciplines, not only through an Islamist scope, but also because of drying out vivid international relations. It is not yet clear which private institutions and which state-bound disciplines will survive, but certainly, practical field on medium level will be supported by the regime out of survival necessity, including teacher training, medicine, and engineering. You can learn about this indirectly, when observing which experts are not allowed to leave the country.

Which were the main players of the international community that helped building the higher education sector and who were the key players on a governmental and on a private sector or civil society level in Afghanistan? How were they supporting the higher education sector in Afghanistan?

A most intricate and difficult question. In the beginning (2002-2005), there was a kind of leadership competition between the US and Germany. Other strong players were Japan, Korea, and some Western countries. Germany certainly played a pivotal role in the educational sectors, and a focused main role both on the level of preparing for good legal foundations (later strongly put into perspective, or relativised, unfortunately). The stipend and grant aspects were strong and still have been one of the major inputs by Germany.

The long-lasting impact of the former Soviet regulations of higher education has steadily decreased but is still observable, structurally in and formal aspects; there has been neither an “Americanisation” nor a true “Europeanisation”, but a quite dynamic mixture, imported by returnees, institutional cooperation station-to-station, and individuals, has occurred. Private institutions, like the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) under former minister of higher education Sharif Fayez, are quite typical for a medium level way of letting grow the professional middle-class access; here the international, mainly US, influence has been larger.

Which were important laws and regulations that were passed during that time?

Before 2005, I belonged to a team writing a new higher education law for the President and minister Fayez. They abstained to present it to the parliament, and later dropped the idea completely. I confess that I became less interested in all legal and administrative provisions afterwards, because I soon learned that the real measures occurred outside legislation and even below the level of official decrees. So, please forgive that I will not further comment on the issue, I do not know enough to describe and comment.

The first universities have reopened. Are the universities now managed directly by the Taliban authority? Do the Taliban have any approach towards higher education? How do you anticipate the education sector to change under their regime? What have they already implemented, for example changes in curricula etc.? Are there any limits for women to visit institutions of higher education?

It is not really clear what has been regulated since the takeover of power and what will be fixed. From what I have learned from recently arrived academics and students in Germany is a rather subjective view, but there are some indications. The Taliban have, of course, a strong ideological focus on all kinds of learning and education, albeit more pragmatic and less narrow than in the 1990s. My impression, also from the school sector, is that the Taliban compromise both with the interests of the people (families with no perspective of fleeing or legally leaving the country, middle class loyals, etc.) and with their endeavor to gain at least some resources from international partners (it would be too easy to call this money for softening policies, but there is something to it, especially in times of famine and the danger of being forgotten altogether because of other wars and conflicts like Ukraine).

If changes in curricula are decreed, this does not mean that they will be really implemented, or that there is soft compromising. The reports are, as I say, mixed, and the Taliban seem to be undecided about many substantial aspects of their higher education policy.

How is the current scenario different from the last Taliban rule in the 1990s when it comes to the higher education sector?

Of course, it is different, and is only partially a succession and a continuation of the previous regime. Certainly, there are also attempts to reestablish authority and reputation by those Taliban who had been chased away in the early 2000s. But one thing is clearly observable: The present leadership is a mix of the previous elite and a better trained, more diplomatic and more realistic composition. This is no excuse or softer evaluation the regime. But their foes and enemies are different: Internally, the poor performance of the Ashraf Ghani government gives them, at least temporarily, a stronger foundation. That does not mean that they can rule without cruelty, violation of human rights, and negligence of basic democratic rights. But they must be cautious: The two decades of feeble but growing democratic civil society is not so easy to oppress than the society of the 1990s, and there are media, and the internet, also with the diaspora. This can make them shakier, because of the enemies, e.g. the Islamic State (IS). There they need a principal support by the people (and, by the way, also from some Western supporters).  So, in provisional conclusion: The more the Taliban become an authoritarian Islamic regime, the less Afghanistan is in the actual focus of the global actors – not only “the West”, but also Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan, and other players. Pakistan, to me, is the biggest and almost unsolvable problem. This would require a special debate, though.

Which implications do you anticipate for the working environment/ conditions for the university faculty and administrative staff? Will they be able to continue their work under the current regime?

Strangely enough, I am not overly pessimistic. Authoritarian regimes are learning fast that without a higher education system functional at the core, their rule will be weakened rather soon (This is a historical fact from many global actors, both East and West, and from the global South as well). There will be a kind of cautious opening after the purging period as of now, which is bad enough. The negative outlook would be a complete downgrading of the society, which the Taliban cannot afford for many economic reasons. Much will depend on the educational outcome from the school system and the resilience of the educational effects from the last 20 years.

How can Germany and the EU support the higher education sector in Afghanistan in the current scenario? Do you have recommendations that you would like to share?

DAAD, the Rectors Conference, Volkswagen Foundation and others in Germany and the EU do a lot to support Afghans escaping the regime and trying to continue their education or the professional transition in Germany. Here, I am really engaged; the details are promising, however bureaucratic. I hope that the new government in Germany has a closer and better look on Afghanistan than the previous one, which was too much steered by the resentments of the ministry of the interior. This aspect seems to be progressive and is showing first positive results. I am also practically involved in some “real” cases, and feel good seeing how much initiative in some universities is being activated.

What we can do in Afghanistan is a different question. We must respect the policy of the present government to not let influence or participate in the higher education agenda. So, we must change strategies. There are two strands: One is the continuation to support getting people, whose lives and families are in danger, out of the country because they are declared enemies or risks for the Taliban government. This is one humanitarian task that we can only do with some links to the government and official organisations (UN, EU, etc.). The other strand is more intricate. There is no real consensus about strategies, but we all agree that there should be further cooperation. The approach can be best initiated by those organisations in Germany that still are allowed to act in Afghanistan. There are some (cooperation), and more often compromises with their policies are easier to make than to establish perfect new organisations. If we concentrate on human rights, as I prefer, then education and health are the trigger fields for such activities. And from my experience I can see, it is possible to help. One principle is that we should remain “low key” and not try to repeat the rhetoric mistakes from the time of liberation, promising a Western approach as the road to happiness. I am saying this, because we have a better basis of communication through the devastating social and physical situation in the country, which is not unobserved by the regime: Famine, climate, devastation of the country-side and urban poverty…). Development aid on a concrete level of cooperation rather than imported “change” is, for the moment, the better choice.

Cover Study

The publication by Dr. Mohammad Hadi Ahmadi analyzes the higher education in Afghanistan in a qualitative approach with the focus on shrinking academic freedom, freedom on academic subjects, and female access to higher education under the Taliban regime in two different time periods from 1996 to 2001 and from 15 August 2021 onward. Challenges of women with access to education, prohibition of subjects such as fine arts and revision of some curricula are among the highlighted theme of the paper. Based on the interviews and observations, the paper ends with the author recommendations to stakeholders of the higher education sector in Afghanistan.

Hadi Ahmadi has PhD of political science and master of IHRL & IHL from Germany. His professional experience spans more than a decade in public and private sectors, both in Afghanistan and Germany. He has diplomatic and academic backgrounds. He worked in the recent years as a dean of faculty in a Kabul based university.