Afghan brain drain fears over education reforms

A call by Afghan President Hamid Karzai for more foreign involvement in the country's higher education system risks exacerbating an already dangerous brain drain, analysts warn.

With foreign forces set to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, the country badly needs highly skilled graduates to help it rebuild and progress economically after more than 30 years of near-continuous war.

Karzai on Saturday called for subjects such as medicine and engineering to be taught in international languages such as English or German, and invited foreign institutions to come and fund Afghan faculties.

"If France wants they can take over our medical university to teach. They can even bring teachers, books and teach in French," he told a seminar on reforming Afghanistan's education system.

"If Germany wants to take over our engineering faculty we will be very happy."

He also said Afghanistan would allocate up to $15 million for scholarships to send more students abroad for higher education next year.

Decades of war and conflict in Afghanistan have destroyed hundreds of schools and colleges and many of those who are well-educated have fled to other countries, causing a severe brain drain in the country.

Writer and analyst Mostafa Assir warned that Karzai's proposals were only likely to make the situation worse.

"There is no doubt that once Afghans are educated here to an international level, they will not stay -- the country is simply not ready to accept them," he told AFP.

"There is no job security for them, no security for their lives. Why wouldn't they leave the country to find a better life?"

Afghanistan's education system has been through many changes since the country's last monarch, King Zahir Shah, was overthrown in 1973, leading to an invasion by the Soviet Union in December 1979 and 30 years of war.

When Soviet troops were in Afghanistan in the 1980s, textbooks that preached communism were printed and taught in schools.

In turn, they were countered by books backed by the United States filled with anti-communist ideas of resistance against the Soviets.

Then, during the rule of the hardline Islamist Taliban from 1996 until their overthrow by a US-led invasion in 2001, schoolbooks were dominated by the promotion of jihad, or holy war.

Girls were banned from going to school and madrassas, or religious schools, became the main source of education for boys.

Since the fall of the Taliban, education in Afghanistan has expanded rapidly and the education ministry says there are now around 8.2 million students in school, up from about 1.2 million 10 years ago.

As well as the problems of maintaining security after NATO pulls out, Afghanistan faces the challenge of developing a successful and sustainable economy.

Analyst Waheed Wafa accused the government of having no long-term plan for education and warned the country would lose its brightest and best entrepreneurial talents.

"Young educated Afghans are already on the run -- a young Afghan who has studied business will have to leave the country, as there will be no job for him," he told AFP.

"In order to stop the brain drain which is already happening, the international community should shift its focus from humanitarian assistance to helping education -- that is how we will be able to bring changes."

But not everyone is pessimistic about the proposals. Nasir Mahmood, a university lecturer, welcomed the idea of teaching in English.

"There are a lot of updated books, especially in science, that are in English, and since many of our students don't know English they can't use them," he told AFP.

And he suggested Afghanistan could benefit from students going abroad.

"Even if they flee the country, the can always come back with more knowledge," he said.

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