When a country is at war, what happens to its universities? And why does it matter to its young citizens? The British Council's Sally Ward describes the heartbreak facing the young Syrians who wish to educate themselves and rebuild their country.
When millions flee their homes, higher education is no longer a priority
Over two million people have fled Syria since the beginning of the conflict in 2011, creating one of the largest refugee exoduses in recent history. The number of displaced people continues to grow, and will do so until a resolution is found. While there are many displaced Syrians still within the country itself, most of those who have left remain in the region: in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Turkey. The resulting population increase in these countries has put significant pressure on local education, health and infrastructure provision. By the end of 2014, the number of registered refugees regionally is expected to grow to a total of 4.1 million, with the largest proportion of 1.65 million in Lebanon, and 800,000 in Jordan.
The stated priorities of the UN High Commission for Refugees are to provide protection, food and water, shelter, health and children’s education for displaced Syrians in host countries. No mention is made of tertiary education. And yet, when Syria eventually stabilises, it will be the young people with further education and skills who will be responsible for rebuilding their country -- physically, intellectually and emotionally.
Syria's universities, before and after the war
Prior to the conflict, Syrian higher education provided co-educational access to young men and women across the country through a well-developed network of public and private universities and technical academies (described as roughly the equivalent of community colleges in the US). By the year 2000, more than 100,000 young Syrians were attending university at any given time.
While academic and political freedom was not (and is not) a part of Syrian university life, and opposition-political involvement could lead to trouble, Syrian higher education institutions efficiently educated and trained young people to fill positions in both the private and the public sectors in Syria, including large numbers of women.
On the surface, many universities in Syria still function. But the ongoing violence and instability (including numerous checkpoints that have to be negotiated before even getting to the campus) have meant that it has become more and more difficult for students to keep up with their studies. As a result, the number of students enrolled at universities has dropped by a large percentage.
It's difficult for Syrian students to continue their education outside Syria
As the conflict drags on into a third and fourth year with no sign of abating, life may arguably be as difficult for those higher education-eligible Syrians who are now living in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt, as it is for students still inside Syria. Many of these young people have not had the opportunity to start university, or have had their education abruptly disrupted. Accurate statistics for university-age displaced Syrians are not available. But the numbers are likely to be high, given the extent of the state-sponsored higher education system that has operated in Syria in the recent past.
While Jordan has no clear policy on Syrian higher education-eligible students, there is concern that helping Syrians access higher education will disadvantage young Jordanians, who are within, or about to enter, a state system that is already under pressure. Anecdotally, it appears that Syrians currently living in Jordan do attend private universities (the president of one private university told me informally that 50 per cent of his students were from either Iraq or Syria), for which they have to go through an equivalency process and pay in US dollars, at premium rates. However, many Syrians who would otherwise be qualified to enter university in Syria, cannot access the documents they need to enter universities in Jordan. In addition, there is a lack of compatibility between the French-based Syrian system and the American-based Jordanian system, which makes it difficult to recognise and transfer academic credits.
In Lebanon, some Syrian students with financial means are able to attend the Lebanese University (the only public institution) or one of the private Lebanese institutions. Entry into universities is competitive, with entry into some courses based on the national secondary exam, conducted in French or English -- a big disadvantage to Arabic-speaking Syrians.
In Kurdistan by comparison, university access is allowed for Syrians who fit the equivalency requirements, and who speak English (in which the majority of courses are taught). If they meet these requirements, they are able to access education with no fees. Three hundred Syrians have been enrolled, but there is a lack of capacity in the system. In addition, English as a study-medium may be difficult for Syrians, who study in Arabic back home.
Likewise, in Turkey, displaced Syrians who have documentation can go to university without paying fees; as long as they can speak Turkish. There are a number of initiatives set up by UNICEF and some universities to help Syrian students learn Turkish to ease their entry into higher education.
Syrians studying in the UK have been given help
Between 2008-2011, the Syrian Ministry of Higher Education sponsored a number of Masters and doctoral students to study in the UK through its Higher Education Capacity Building Project, in partnership with the British Council. With the outbreak of violence and resulting financial sanctions, these students have had difficulty accessing money to pay fees and support themselves in the UK. They have also had to cope with the stress of trying to study, while dealing with the chaos and tragedy affecting their families back home.
The British Council, with the UK Higher Education International Unit, NUS, UKCISA and others has worked to ensure that all of the UK institutions with Syrians studying under the project have waived or deferred their fees.
Whichever way one looks, it is clear that the human suffering associated with Syria will continue across generations to come. A friend of mine, still in Syria, says that things become more difficult every day -- and that he is no longer the 'eternal optimist' he once described himself as.
Data taken from the 2014 Syria Regional Response Plan, Uncounted and Unacknowledged: Syria’s Refugee University Students and Academics in Jordan and The War Follows Them: Syrian University Students and Scholars in Lebanon.
For more news, events and reports on higher education, connect with us on LinkedIn.