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Afghans flock to colleges, even as Taliban loom

Thursday - 9/19/2013, 11:08am  ET

In this photo taken Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2013, Shahed Shams, an Afghan professor, teaches business administration at Kardan University in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP Photo/Ahmad Jamshid)

NAHAL TOOSI
Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Ten years ago, Roeen Rahmani and some friends spent $300 on an overhead projector and a rented room to teach a business course to Afghans emerging from civil war and Taliban rule. Nobody showed up for the first class.

Today, that initial effort has evolved into Kardan University, a private institution educating more than 8,000 students in programs ranging from political science to civil engineering. But for Rahmani, the school's chancellor, it's not enough.

"My vision is bigger than this," he says.

Rahmani's dreams of growth could easily come true if Afghanistan doesn't fall apart after foreign forces complete their withdrawal next year. Demand for higher education is soaring in the war-weary country, a striking vote of confidence in its future.

It's a remarkable trend in a nation where just 12 years ago the Taliban government barred girls from attending school and many educated Afghans were forced to flee. Some 7,870 students attended Afghan colleges before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001; today, the figure is up around 26-fold to almost 204,000, as many as a fifth of them women, according to the Ministry of Higher Education.

The growth has been possible in part because Afghan leaders realized that the country's public universities, decimated by years of war, couldn't meet the demand for seats. So in 2006 they legalized private higher education.

Today, 70 private institutions of higher education operate in Afghanistan, educating about 74,000 students, or more than a third of the total, according to the ministry. Many are like Kardan, set up by businessmen with little or no background in academia. Some are backed by foreign governments striving for influence here, and at least one is run by an ex-Taliban leader.

Education authorities say steps are being taken to ensure that the private schools are not merely money-making schemes. But even critics agree that a thriving private sector is crucial for education in this country of 30 million people, two-thirds of whom are 24 or younger.

"In developing countries, especially, you need to invest in higher education, because the need for leadership is so great," said C. Michael Smith, president of the American University of Afghanistan, a private nonprofit institution with more than 1,000 students. "You need a strong government sector, and you need a strong private sector."

A stroll through a Kardan campus offers a vision of Afghanistan often lost amid the daily reports on the violence, the Taliban insurgency and the struggles of Afghan troops taking over from the departing U.S.-led coalition.

Young women in skinny jeans and colorful headscarves take notes alongside young men with modishly spiked hair. Fliers post notices for extracurricular activities. Teachers recruited from Pakistan, India and farther afield add something of an international flavor.

There's no campus quad or sports stadium -- it's basically an office building -- but the energy coursing through the halls is palpable.

Katia Mohib, a shy, slender 22-year-old, is finishing a business administration degree. Like many of her fellow classmates, she didn't score well enough on Afghanistan's highly competitive college entrance exam to land a spot in a public university, so she chose Kardan.

"I am very happy," Mohib says. "I am sure that after I finish I will be able to work for a good organization."

The driving force behind Kardan is Rahmani, a wiry man who, being just 31, sports a goatee lest any members of the academic establishment judge him too young for his job. His founding partners have parted ways, but Rahmani has recruited a staff of other young, energetic Afghans.

Rahmani spent much of his childhood as a refugee in neighboring Pakistan. He says he has multiple business degrees -- one is an MBA from the York University Schulich School of Business in Canada, where he has lived on and off.

Rahmani says Kardan has a $4 million operating budget, and charges around $6,600 for a four-year bachelor's degree. The students, many of whom have jobs, can pay monthly.

The school's rapid rise has prompted questions about whether it is producing qualified graduates or suckering students out of their money.

None of its critics would go on the record, but Rahmani says their suspicions are misplaced, and that all profits are invested back into the school. "I've read people calling me a drug dealer, mafia, stuff like that, but I'm happy I'm not involved in any of those things," he said.

Rahmani acknowledged that some of Kardan's programs need more academic rigor but predicted standards would improve with time. He said that if private universities operating in a war zone had to meet Western standards, countless Afghans would never get a college degree.

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