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Educators seek to ensure Afghan students’ plans not disregarded

The UK has promised to allow Afghan students on government-funded scholarships access to visas in order to arrive to complete their study programs in the UK, despite previously warning them their studies would be postponed.

The UK prime minister said his government would do 'whatever it can to accelerate' visas for Chevening scholars from Afghanistan. Photo: Defence Images/ Flickr

"It is to be feared that with the Taliban coming to power, the results and successes of numerous projects in higher education and civil society are also at risk"

However, it is still not clear how students will be able to leave the landlocked country as the Taliban takes control following the withdrawal of US and ally troops.

Reports from the international airport in the country’s capital indicate that only US military planes are taking off and landing among scenes of “absolute chaos”.

Some 35 Afghan students are set to join the UK’s Chevening Scholarship program this academic year, and the UK prime minister has said that the government is working to ensure their visas are prioritised as a matter of urgency.

The announcement came after the scholars had been told in a letter on August 6 that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office would defer their offers until 2022/23 as a result of the British embassy in Kabul being “unable to administer the parts of the program that must be done in Kabul in time for candidates to begin their courses this year”.

“We do want to make sure [the Chevening scholars] are able to come and so we’re doing whatever we can to accelerate their visas to get them over,” prime minister Boris Johnson said on August 15.

Reports have also suggested that the UK ambassador in Afghanistan’s capital city Laurie Bristow remained in the country on August 15 to process visa applications from the airport. It is not clear if the visas of the Chevening scholars have been processed.

“We are extremely concerned for the safety and well-being of the young talented Afghans”

Nine of the 35 students, including 35-year-old Naimatullah Zafary, are due to start at the University of Sussex’s Institute of Development Studies in the upcoming semester.

The inability to obtain visas would “leave these students in a highly vulnerable situation and they may never get the opportunity to study in the UK”, University of Sussex vice-chancellor, Adam Tickell, said in a statement.

“We are extremely concerned for the safety and well-being of the young talented Afghans who had successfully been awarded a Chevening Scholarship to study in the UK this September, including those due to start a master’s course in development studies with us at IDS,” Melissa Leach, director of the Institute of Development Studies added.

“They are now in an incredibly stressful and dangerous situation, and the scholarships they were promised for this academic year are now in jeopardy.”

Other UK institutions that are set to host Chevening scholars from Afghanistan include London Metropolitan University.

“We are concerned about the situation in Afghanistan and the distressing scenes that have emerged over the last few days,” a London Met spokesperson told The PIE, as they welcomed the prime minister’s intervention.

“One of the scholars is due to begin a master’s in Peace, Conflict and Diplomacy Studies with us this academic year – we have been in touch with him to offer our support,” they added.

“We will also be reaching out to members of our student and staff community who may be affected by the situation in Afghanistan.

“We will continue to work closely with our colleagues across the sector and Universities UK International as the situation develops.”

Sussex has penned a letter to UK foreign secretary Dominic Raab to urge the government to “offer all the help possible to support their studies in the coming academic year”, Tickell added.

“We are also in the process of contacting our existing students from Afghanistan to provide all the support we can at this very difficult time,” he explained.

More than 60,000 people have signed a petition urging the UK government to assist educators who have been employed by the British Council in the country.

The Taliban attacked the UK’s culture and education outreach organisation in 2011. Since, many Afghan employees have faced discrimination and threats, “with local mullahs denouncing them publicly as traitors working with the infidels”, educator and former British Council employee Julia Cave-Smith wrote in PoliticsHome.

UUKi told The PIE its priority is “to work with UK government departments, international organisations and the university sector to support the safety of all current and prospective students, as well as Afghan staff in the UK”.

“We are raising concerns with UK government, and promoting sources of support and guidance including the UKCISA confidential advice line, and the Council for At-Risk Academics,” a spokesperson said.

“We encourage any affected students and staff to make contact through these channels and through their university networks. We will continue to follow the situation and support in any way we can.”

In the US, the State department has said its headline government scholarship program remains open, as it continues to track events in Afghanistan closely.

“The Fulbright Program continues to operate, and we continue to support the aspirations of students who are planning to study in the US,” a State department official said.

Similarly in Europe, The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) told The PIE it has for months “been in direct contact with local Afghan staff who are particularly at risk and, for example through the Hilde Domin Programme, offers threatened young academics a perspective outside their country”.

“For the sake of the people and the exchange, we hope for stable and peaceful conditions in Afghanistan”

Current developments in Afghanistan are a “great concern”, the DAAD said.

“It is to be feared that with the Taliban coming to power, the results and successes of numerous projects in higher education and civil society are also at risk,” it said. “Since 2002, the DAAD has supported German higher education institutions in working with their Afghan partner institutions to train young women and men in various academic subjects and to modernise the structures of the Afghan academic system.”

Under the current situation, the DAAD’s “most urgent concern is to support our partners in Afghanistan as well as their families in leaving the country quickly and safely”, a spokesperson told The PIE.

“We maintain a close exchange with the Federal Foreign Office (AA) and those member universities that have been involved in Afghanistan in recent years. A crisis team that meets regularly is on duty and monitors the situation on the ground.

“The DAAD stands for academic exchange and international scientific cooperation, even in difficult times. For the sake of the people and the exchange, we hope for stable and peaceful conditions in Afghanistan.”

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