by Farid Behbud
KABUL, March 26 (Xinhua) -- Millions of students around Afghanistan are gearing up for the new academic year in the conflict-hit country. Despite some improvements, many Afghans believe there's still a long way to go before the nation's education system being on a par with global standards.
Currently around 9.5 million students, 40 percent of which being female, attend over 15,000 schools throughout the country, which is unprecedented in the history of Afghanistan.
This is also undoubtedly a significant achievement in a short period of time, a decade-and-a-half, according to Afghanistan's Ministry of Education.
However, many Afghan students, parents and scholars believe that the country's education system still faces some significant challenges including raising the standards of education.
"Quantitatively speaking, we have made some progress in education but we must not ignore the fact that the education system is facing some serious and crippling challenges such as a low quality education service, outdated curriculum, and insufficient schooling infrastructure," Zaker Hussain Ershad, political science professor at Ibne Sina, a private university in Kabul, told Xinhua recently.
"Insecurity and corruption are also among the major challenges and problems facing the Afghan education system," Ershad said.
"Therefore, urgent, feasible and lasting solutions must be found for each of these challenges," he said.
On Saturday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani rang the bell of a local school in central Kabul to inaugurate the new academic year.
The Afghan president said that the Afghan school system had seen significant progress but more efforts were needed to improve the quality of education in the poverty-stricken country.
"There has been significant progress in terms of quantity in Afghan education in recent years, but the government firmly hopes to develop all ways and means to boost education, and improve the quality of the education system in Afghanistan," Ghani said.
Insecurity is one of the most pressing and striking matters. Thousands of students, particularly females in rural areas, have not been able to attend school due to the security threat posed by various insurgent groups such as the Taliban.
Corruption and embezzlement is also an obstacle to the provision of decent education in Afghanistan and millions of dollars have been misused or wasted in the past 17 years.
"Previous officials in the education ministry embezzled millions of dollars from the international community, which is called grand corruption," Iqbal Heidari, who teaches economics at Bamyan University, told Xinhua.
The quality of education generally is not comparable to global standards, with another challenge being that people with experience and knowledge are not willing to be teachers due to low payment.
In Afghanistan the payment for educators is very low, which means there is not enough financial incentive for educated and experienced teachers to work in schools or universities.
The curricula taught in schools and universities is also believed by those with knowledge of the matter to not be suitable to the students' development.
"The current curriculum does not meet the needs of our country and it has been developed without considering the skills students need to learn and develop," Ahmad Zia Bahraini, who teaches computer science at Kabul University, said.
"Thus, they must be redeveloped according the needs of the country," he said.
A shortage of learning materials, particularly textbooks, and a lack of buildings are other key challenges, especially in rural areas.
Children in these areas are not able to receive equal education and often study in tents and use mosques as classrooms.
More than 50 percent of Afghan schools do not have a building. Some schools' classes are oversubscribed to the point that more than 50 students have to attend a single class.
"Some government schools are too crowded. There should not be more than 20 students in a class but sometimes 50 students attend one class with just a few chairs and desks," Shafiqullah Anawri, a high school student, told Xinhua.
"The government has published enough textbooks in recent years but there is a problem in the distribution process and the transporting of textbooks, especially to restive districts and far mountainous areas," he said.
President Ghani on Saturday also urged religious scholars to encourage parents to enroll their children in local schools as more than 3.5 million school-aged children have no access to education due to poverty, conflicts and insurgency.
Receiving an education that will help graduates secure work is yet another issue that the government here must traverse in improving the overall system, experts and students noted.
"Education experts and officials must ensure that children develop both basic and complex skills through education," said Anawri, adding that thousands of graduates face difficulties finding good jobs after they graduate from high schools and universities.
"I really welcome President Ghani's comments on education system reforms, as he said that the government will improve the school systems by allocating existing budgets and systematically aiming to make a real difference in the lives of children across Afghanistan," he added.