Fresh for the Plucking?

March 27, 2007

If the Taliban were to launch an ambitious recruiting campaign across Afghanistan in the next few weeks, odds are they will find hundreds if not thousands of despairing young men who have been turned down by the handful institutions of higher learning in the country and face grim and unknown futures. These are members of the post-Taliban generation of high school graduates who have long dreamed of gaining a university education -as evidenced by their widespread participation in the university entry exams- and are suddenly finding out that those dreams are shattered -and all for no fault of theirs.

Afghanistan’s few universities are already operating above capacity, and now for another consecutive year university officials have had to turn down some 38,000 candidates who participated in the matriculation exams -a figure nearly double that of last year’s, and representing nearly two thirds of this year’s university hopefuls.

According to a BBC Persian report by journalist Dawood Naji from Kabul, as more and more students graduate from high schools across the country and a greater number of these decide to take part in the university entry exams, authorities will have to refuse entry to an ever increasing number of students. The report cites an estimate by Afghanistan’s Ministry of Higher Learning that in 10 years the number of university candidates will reach a million students per year while the capacity of Afghanistan’s universities will peak at merely 100,000 – only one in ten students will have the opporturnity to attend university. Already the issue is spoken of as “Afghanistan’s crisis of higher education.”

It is easy to foresee where all of this is headed for: The end of the Taliban era was marked by an explosion in primary school enrollments (approximately 4 million for each of the past two years.) As this boom generation reaches high school and later graduates, competition will worsen and universities will be overwhelmed. Just as investment in higher education will ensure a future generation of educated citizens and skilled workers for the country’s reconstruction, neglecting to address this mounting crisis will spawn hundreds of thousands of young people who are too educated and ambitious to settle for the traditional farming and labor employments, and too unprepared and unskilled to fill jobs in the public and private sectors that demand specific skills and a university degree – such a generation of ambitious discontents is sure to provide extremist and irredentist causes with fresh recruits thirsty for a certain future and a sense of meaning and belonging.