By Dr John Law

22 April 2016 - 13:32

Mohammed, a nurse working in Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan. Image (c) DFID, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the oiriginal.
'We may be able to improve the lot of thousands of students and colleagues whose lives and careers are in danger'. Photo ©

DFID, licensed under CC BY 2.0 and adapted from the original.

What can universities and the people who work for them do to help students and academics fleeing violence in Syria and elsewhere? The British Council's Dr John Law answers.

Can universities help Syrian refugees?

Yes, in lots of ways. Many universities in the countries that host displaced Syrians are already discussing what role they might play. Depending on their resources, they may want to help directly, or through another organisation on the ground. They can also team up with other universities or partner organisations who are closely involved.

What's the best way to reach the largest number of people?

One idea is to create easily accessible online platforms and networks, so that Syrian students can pick up and continue their studies. Making modules or courses available online will help students in refugee camps or host communities, who've had their studies disrupted.

Universities can also help Syrians without qualifications to enrol in certified higher education and training programmes. Refugees need routes into employment or further training if they are to recover, so it'll be essential to work with partners on the ground to provide these opportunities. Examples include SPARK, a Dutch non-governmental organisation that runs higher education and entrepreneurship programmes for young people in post-conflict societies; Mobaderoon, the British Council's main civil society partner in Syria; the Asfari Foundation's civil society programme; and the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).

Are there any other practical ways to help?

A direct approach is to offer funded scholarships for students to study at their institutions. Another option is to provide academic jobs for exiled faculty members. Universities can also try to virtually mentor early career researchers and academics still working inside Syria, via the internet.

Which universities are doing this?

Many UK universities are already taking steps to help. For example, the University of York has earmarked £500,000 for undergraduate scholarships for displaced students, and set up a partnership with the Institute of International Education (which coordinates global scholar rescue programmes) to provide places for academics. The University of Glasgow, among others, has a partnership with the Council for At Risk Academics (CARA) to provide scholarships and waive fees. Other UK universities are also tailoring scholarship schemes as part of their response, including Oxford, Sussex, Edinburgh and several of the universities in London, such as the London School of Economics (LSE), Goldsmiths, and SOAS.

The University of Bath is working with local partner institutions in Jordan to train academics to doctoral level in areas like engineering and mathematics, and will run a local master's programme in education to train teachers in the region. Glasgow Caledonian University is also working on ways to provide face-to-face education for Syrian refugees in neighbouring host countries. The University of Bradford is establishing itself as a university of sanctuary, part of a broader movement to make cities and universities more welcoming places for refugees.

Given this variety of efforts, how do universities decide what's the best way to help?

It's tricky. We desperately need more research to figure out the best ways to respond to this crisis. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and the Department for International Development (DFiD) have put £1 million into an urgency grant for research to better understand what's perpetuating the crisis, and its dynamics. This will be used to fund eight projects at six British universities: Durham, Warwick, York, Queen Mary, Middlesex, and Coventry. But given that we don't yet have the results of such research, universities need to figure out the best course of action based on their own situations.

Can universities help students transfer credits or a qualification in, say, medicine, from a Syrian university to a British one?

Yes, this must be part of any effective response. The higher education sectors can work together to recognise learning credits. That way, students can transfer their credits and qualifications from their home universities to universities in their host country. This will increase the system's capacity to absorb displaced students, and help them move across more easily. The UK's National Recognition Information Centre (UK NARIC), which recognises and compares international qualifications, should be able to help UK universities deal with this challenge.

What about local classes to help new arrivals acclimatise?

These are also really important. Language classes will help refugees communicate more easily in their host country. Cultural education support will help them navigate the social and cultural norms of a new society.

Whose responsibility is it to organise and pay for this? Universities, or the government in the host country?

It must be a shared responsibility. It's a multi-dimensional problem, so we need a collective response. Government ministries in different countries need to work with universities to help them tackle the problem at different levels, and to fund the work involved.

Having said that, there's a keen appetite to help among international higher education professionals. As an example, in July 2015, academics from around the world gathered at the University of York to agree the York Accord, a commitment to protect and rebuild higher education destroyed by conflict.

What about online classes? Are those helpful and useful to people in refugee camps? 

Some UK institutions are looking into providing free massive open online courses (MOOCs) and vocational MOOCs. The Open University and FutureLearn run accredited courses, and the British Council is working with an Arabic MOOC provider to teach English.

Despite this, we know that online learning on its own is unlikely to be very successful. What students need are support mechanisms to keep them on track, so they can finish the whole course. It would be worth setting up networks, so that students can work together in teams and review each other's work, for encouragement and support.

We also need certification routes so that university partners can give formal credits to students who have completed a MOOC. To do this on a big scale, we need technology that can give automated feedback, based on objective online assessments.

In a nutshell, MOOCs are part of a solution. But they need to be connected and set up in a way that allows students to gain accreditations and routes into formal study - something the higher education sector (collectively) has not yet managed to do.

How can academics help each other?

By networking. As a community, the higher education sector can make it possible for a new generation of academics in conflict zones to thrive. Many new research staff in Syria are unable to develop their careers due to the conflict, high teaching loads and lack of mentorship opportunities. These are the people who could rebuild the country into a knowledge economy. It is essential that we support them.

We can help young faculty members by introducing them to experts in their field, and setting up online support programmes, in which they can share ideas and advice with their counterparts overseas.

What opportunities already exist for academics?

The Institute of International Education manages a Scholar Rescue Fund, which offers fellowships to professors and researchers who are threatened in their home countries.

The British Council also runs Researcher Links, which organises workshops and offers travel grants to academics at the beginning of their careers. We already have solid experience of mentoring, through our INSPIRE project, which ran about three years ago. It included an online programme that matched academics in Afghanistan with their colleagues in the UK.

How will universities know if their efforts are successful?

The true impact of efforts to improve the lives of refugees and academics in troubled countries like Syria may not be realised for decades. That doesn't mean that it isn't vitally important.

For one thing, many conflicts drag on for years. This crisis will take at least a decade to recover from. So universities may be able to learn lessons from monitoring and evaluating their efforts now, which will help them develop more effective programmes to help refugees further down the track. By taking a critical look at what's helpful and what isn't, and responding flexibly, we may be able to improve the lot of thousands of students and of our colleagues in higher education whose lives and careers are in danger, through no fault of their own.

Dr John Law is Head of UK Education Coordination at the British Council.

Find out more at Responding to the refugee crisis: what role for higher education?, a session at the British Council's Going Global conference on international higher education, taking place in Cape Town, South Africa, on 3-5 May 2016.

The British Council is running quarterly meetings with universities and higher education organisations on the UK response to the Syrian refugee crisis.

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