This spring, the Chaman-e-Hozouri park in Kabul was the scene of an unusual sale. After repeated protests by students who were shut out of the public university system because of lack of space, the Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Industries hastily authorized a plan developed by 16 private higher-education institutes to offer 50-percent tuition discounts to 16,000 students. Thousands of young people showed up during four days in April to meet with college representatives under tents.
Relying on the private sector might seem a reasonable way to make up for a shortfall in public higher-education spots in Afghanistan: Only 43,000 out of 117,000 applicants were granted admission following a national entrance examination in March.
But the rapid growth of the loosely regulated private higher-education sector raises as many questions as it provides solutions.
"Everybody knows that they operate as businesses, but our concern is, What if they suddenly close down and leave us high and dry?" asks Jawad Layeq, a second-year student at the Gharjestan Institute of Higher Education, which participated in the April enrollment drive.
The concerns extend to the top: Speaking at a ceremony to mark the beginning of the academic year, in March, the country's president, Hamid Karzai, said the pursuit of profit by some private institutions was damaging academic quality over all.
"In Britain, the United States, India, and elsewhere, private-education standards are very high. The same level of standards can also be achieved in Afghanistan, but unfortunately, right now, [some of] these institutions are only there to earn money," he told the directors of many of the new private schools and institutes.
"Dear brothers and elders who have opened institutes for personal gain and business, please go and earn your money by other means, but don't dupe our children with bogus certificates," Mr. Karzai implored.
The country's two dozen government-run universities work alongside more than 40 privately owned higher-education institutes, 13 of which have sprung up in the past year, says Abdul Karim Soroush, head of the private-educational-institutions directorate at the Ministry of Higher Education.
"Today the number of study places offered by privately owned institutions matches that of state institutes of higher education," he says.
The private sector is expected to grow, despite plans to expand the public system. By 2014, half a million young Afghans may be competing for 135,000 state-university places, says Osman Babori, former deputy minister for higher education.
This demand testifies to a voracious appetite for education in a country that has endured occupation and war with the Soviets, civil war, and oppression by the Taliban. Today, after a 10-year insurgency waged by the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and other factions, education is seen by many Afghans as a way out of the deadlock.
Much of the enthusiasm for higher education originated from the millions of Afghans who returned home after the 2001 ouster of the Taliban-led government. As refugees, they had discovered opportunities for education in Pakistan and Iran that few Afghans had previously enjoyed.
With the government's meager resources swamped by demand, private providers have aggressively pursued students. Banners, billboards, television spots, and radio ads promise an "open educational environment," "library and well-equipped lab," and "debate and thought exchange programs."
"Sometimes when you look at the billboards and advertisements of these private schools and higher-education institutes, it feels like they are promoting some soap or dress," says Masoud Hassanzada, a prominent poet, blogger, and cultural and social commentator. "Education shouldn't become so heavily commercialized, due to its sanctity and moral value."
But the situation isn't as bad as it has been painted, insist education officials.
The Ministry of Higher Education's Mr. Soroush says he shares the president's concerns. "We have problems in all sectors of our society, and education institutions are no exception," he says. But "if the quality of education in private institutions is not better than the government institutions, I can say for sure that it is not worse, either."
Public education in Afghanistan leaves much to be desired. The state-mandated curriculum has not been updated in the 30 years since it was introduced by the Soviets during their occupation. By contrast, many of the newer private higher-education institutes offer competitive extras, like English and computer science. Committed private providers can also use their resources to hire better instructors, offer smaller classes, and aim to meet Western academic standards.
Job Prospects Unclear
The Kardan Institute of Higher Education, set up in the capital in 2006, is typical of this new kind of institution. It charges its 6,000 students $130 a month—about an average month's salary—and offers programs in economics, law, computer science, information technology, business administration, and civil engineering. Still, despite its five-year history, the vice chancellor was unable to say how successful Kardan's graduates have been in finding gainful employment.
Like in many areas of Afghan society, the tools don't seem to be available, or the practices instituted, to measure the successes and failures of the education system.
Farshid Gheyasi, head of the Kabul Employment Agency, says there has been no proper comparison of the job prospects of graduates of the private and state institutions.
"I think it really depends on students themselves, but the private institutions pay more attention to English-language and computer skills, which is an advantage," he says.
Meanwhile, legislators are having trouble keeping pace with the expansion of private enterprise at both the secondary- and higher-education levels.
"The code of conduct that the government initially drafted was heavily flawed because the ministry at the time had no experience of how to oversee the work of private establishments," says Abdul Saboor Qufrani, spokesman for the Ministry of Education, which is separate from the Ministry of Higher Education.
But new standards mean that those who flout the rules can expect to lose their operating licenses, he says.
There are clearly many problems still to solve, like the monitoring of instructor qualifications. Many instructors employed in higher education, both public and private, hold only bachelor's degrees. The situation is worse in secondary schools, where teachers may have only just left school themselves, and are working to finance their further studies.
The ministries say they will continue to perform spot checks to close the holes in the system. But for now, they say, they are powerless to help with the other big concern of parents and students: rising tuition fees.
Students are also concerned that once they make their choice in the private sector, they are effectively stuck with it, regardless of any problems they might have with the program.
"I can't now start from the beginning anywhere else," says Mr. Layeq, the student from the Gharjestan Institute of Higher Education. "Private colleges are not like state ones, which allow you to change your university whenever you want. So I have to stay and finish my studies here."