UMass School of Education receives funding to support higher education in Afghanistan
Joseph Berger, co-director of the University of Massachusetts Amherst School of Education's International Education program in Afghanistan. Purchase photo reprints »
Can't name women in this; shows UMass School of Ed's program in Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of UMAss School of Education. Purchase photo reprints »
AMHERST — The School of Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is expanding its work in supporting higher education in Afghanistan.
A new $11.2 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development will more than double funding for the school’s Center for International Education. Since 2006, the center has worked with Afghanistan’s government to set up that country’s first master’s degree program in at least 30 years. The program, now run by Kabul Education University, has awarded degrees in education to 65 graduates, nearly half of whom are women, according to the center’s director, David Evans.
Joseph Berger, associate dean for research and engagement at the School of Education, said the Afghanistan program will now focus on designing a network similar to the U.S. community college system. It will also launch a master’s degree in public policy and administration.
The Gazette recently interviewed Berger, who has traveled to Afghanistan more than 16 times in the past several years. Here are edited excerpts of the conversation:
Q: What does this new grant mean for the center’s work in Afghanistan?
A: The newest wrinkle is to create programs that serve as the foundation for a community college system in Afghanistan, which is really needed, There is still very limited access to higher education and high rates of unemployment there.
In engineering, for example, the ideal ratio is one engineer to six technicians. In Afghanistan, which does not have any four-year engineering degrees, the ratio is almost the inverse: one technician to six engineers. There is real potential for Afghanistan to develop its natural resources but without this training, they don’t have that ability.
Q: Does your program work to recruit Afghan women to higher education?
A: A high priority is to focus on gender equality and improving opportunity. There remain significant challenges for women in Afghanistan. One of the things we’ve been heartened by is the number of men and women who want to work on changing that.
Q: Do UMass students work in Afghanistan?
A: We don’t send our students to Afghanistan but we do bring Afghan students here and there’s a lot of interaction.
Q: How have things changed since you first started working in Kabul?
A: I think that the withdrawal of the U.S. military has the potential to be helpful. At some point, we have to trust that the way we’ve been training the Afghans is going to work. More importantly, when you live with soldiers with guns all around you and where, in the worst situations, innocent people get killed, it can breed ill will. If we can reduce our military presence and maintain support for education and health, that’s a more strategic involvement.
Q: Do you see the Taliban’s influence fading or strengthening?
A: There’s not a simple answer to that. The Taliban is not monolithic. The leadership is also very media savvy. They are not large in numbers but they know how to make themselves appear larger. There are also more moderate factions of the Taliban.
Q: What effect did Osama Bin Laden’s death have in Afghanistan?
A: I was there when that happened and there wasn’t a huge reaction. He was never a major political player in Afghanistan; it’s just where he lived. His death had a much bigger impact on Pakistan.
Q: Why is the School of Education interested in Afghanistan?
A: We have a real commitment to social justice and using education to build communities and societies. We want to work where the challenges are greatest. Besides this new project in Afghanistan, we have one in Palestine and we’ve also worked in Malawi. We go where a lot of universities don’t go or won’t go.
Q: What have you learned from the center’s work in Afghanistan?
A: Many ideas and concepts that work well in the U.S. can’t just be moved from one society to another. You have to adapt things to the local context and you have to value local expertise. If you’re open to that, there’s a lot you can learn.