August 14, 2015
Kabul: A network linking universities in Afghanistan offering journalism programs will launch at the end of 2015. The network of both state-funded and private universities is a highlight of DW Akademie's work in the country.
According to DW Akademie, The 12 participants that took part in the first-ever networking conference held in June in Kabul weren't sure what they could expect over the next three days. They liked the idea of creating a network of Afghan universities but weren't clear on what it would actually achieve. They were also concerned about getting it off the ground and making sure it was sustainable. For DW Akademie, the network is a logical extension of the work it's been doing for a number of years with Afghanistan's state universities.
Benefitting students throughout the country
The project initially got underway in 2013 with funding from the German Foreign Office for Kabul University, Afghanistan's oldest institute of higher learning. While the school's curriculum for aspiring journalists had been well thought through, it lacked a hands-on component. DW Akademie decided to focus on the lecturers themselves, offering training to strengthen their journalism skills around TV, radio, online and print as well as train-the-trainer workshops to refine their teaching techniques.
The Balkh University in Mazar-i-Sharif joined the project in 2014, and Herat University came on board in 2015. Because of security problems in the eastern city of Khost, activities at Khost University are currently on hold, but it remains an important regional partner. The project's overall aim is to link students living in the capital Kabul, with those in the north at Balkh University, those in the west at Herat University, and it is hoped, with students at Khost in the east. The project has also encouraged media partners in the country to begin student internship programs and other initiatives.
DW Akademie's Lina Elter hosted the first network conference. "Students will benefit if their journalism lecturers begin networking and exchanging ideas," she said. "The goal is for students to receive top training, which is the only way that a new generation of journalists can contribute to peace, democracy and the development of their country as a whole."
The future network aims to create a platform where universities can pool their strengths in research and instruction. DW Akademie, which has been active in Afghanistan since 2002, is supervising the process. Over the next few months the network initiators will receive ongoing guidance and mentoring, and a second conference will be held.
Building trust among universities
One unique aspect of the project is that two private universities are taking part. Their curricula differ from those at the state institutions – the private players put a bigger emphasis on practical work and can be more flexible in reacting to changes in the media world. The network will offer an opportunity for both sides to discuss their own approaches, which is important in terms of maintaining quality journalism training in the country.
Mir Azid Ahmad Fanoos from the private Fanoos University in Kabul said the priority was to discuss best practices. "We need to support each other so that we can get ahead and continue to develop professionally," he said. "We need to trust each other and share our experiences." Hamed Obaidi from Kabul University agreed that the institutions should see each other as partners instead of competitors. "A network like this is important because we can support each other by sharing teaching material and our own perspectives," he said.
There was no shortage of ideas during the first networking conference. Participants suggested inviting guest lecturers from partner universities and providing mentoring services by experienced lecturers to those just starting out – especially women. When it came to preventing the theft of bachelor theses, participants suggested creating a databank as quickly as possible that all universities could access.
A touch of freedom
Developing a quality university program for aspiring journalists is particularly important because Afghanistan's media system has rapidly expanded since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. The country currently has almost 200 newspapers and magazines, as well as 40 TV stations and hundreds of radio stations. It is seen as a pioneer in the region. Most Afghan journalists are young and because reporters are in high demand, many stumbled into the profession without a great deal of training beforehand. Despite the low pay, many young people find working in the media an attractive prospect since it gives them a sense of freedom in an otherwise very traditional, conservative society.
Many journalism instructors, however, aren't familiar with the real-world demands of the profession; few have worked as journalists themselves. Lecturers tend to stand in front of the classroom and give Powerpoint presentations to large groups of about 80 students. Lessons are theory-based and there's little interaction with the students. Lecturers have traditionally been seen as authority figures who are not to be challenged.
While initial discussions around the network have been productive, the real test is yet to come. A number of aspects still need to be worked out, such as whether the network should have a managing committee responsible for putting ideas into action, how often network meetings should take place and more importantly, where they should be conducted. Should they be scheduled at the different member universities on a rotating basis, for example?
Hazrat Mohammad Bahar from Khost University said the responsibility lies with the participants. "The networking conference focused on the practical aspects we need to think about and we were able to bring our own experiences to the table," he said. "Now it'll be our job to make sure we nurture this fledgling network."