The crisis of higher education for Syrian refugees

I witnessed the collapse of higher education in Syria firsthand. I lived and worked in eastern Syria as vice dean of the College of Arts and Humanities in the Raqqa campus of Al-Furat University. After the Free Syrian Army took the city from the regime in March 2013, chaos subsumed Al-Furat University’s colleges and institutes. However, we were able to continue all of our administrative work and instruction, with the exception of exams. Students had to take their exams in the university’s regime-controlled campuses in Deir Ezzor and al-Hassaka.

The Islamic State took over the city on January 12, 2014, and imposed specific conditions on us to be able to continue teaching. Among the most important were that males and female students be separated, women wear Islamic dress, and that our teaching not go against their interpretation of Islam. Even though the colleges abided by these conditions, in January 2015, ISIS announced the closure of the university, seized its buildings and facilities, and prevented us from retrieving students’ documents. As such, more than 14,000 students found themselves without a university and facing an uncertain future. I was rendered useless, and so I decided to leave Syria after receiving a fellowship from the Scholar Rescue Fund in the Institute for International Education, in coordination with Georgetown University. I am especially grateful to Associate Professor Rochelle Davis, director of the Master of Arts in Arab Studies in Georgetown’s Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, for her role in this.

When the Syrian revolution broke out in March 2011, university students joined the peaceful protests calling for the fall of the regime. Students and academics were exposed to a campaign of brutal repression, which took hundreds of thousands of students as victims, either martyred or arrested. Academics were not spared either: Many of them were arrested and others had to flee. When the international community abandoned the peaceful protesters, the uprising evolved into an armed conflict, towns and cities were systematically destroyed, and institutions of higher education collapsed. The most significant consequence of the conflict has been that during the past five years, Syria has witnessed the largest wave of displacement in modern times. Nearly 5 million refugees have registered abroad, roughly 7 million people have been internally displaced, at least 400,000 have been killed, and more than 117,000 Syrians have been arrested.

There is no accurate data for the number of university-qualified students that are among these figures, but certain reliable organizations provide estimates. For example, the Institute of International Education says that more than 100,000 Syrian refugees are university-qualified students, which is corroborated by several other international organizations. Roughly 120,000 -140,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) are university-qualified students.

It is bitterly ironic that the Syrian regime’s Ministry of Higher Education’s statistics show that all of those students are still in Syrian universities. They somehow claim the number of enrolled students has increased over the past five years.

The necessary regional and international response

Even if we disregard the human right to education, or that higher education is a means of achieving stability, work, and making a living, then higher education, as Barakat and Milton say:

“…is able to act as a catalyst for the recovery of war-torn countries in the Arab world, not only by supplying the skills and knowledge needed to reconstruct shattered economic and physical infrastructure, but also by supporting the restoration of collapsed governance systems and fostering social cohesion. As home to the strategically vital 18-25 age group, higher education can help shelter and protect an important subset of young men and women during crisis situations, maintaining their hopes in the future, and preventing them from being driven into the hands of violent groups.”

But such statements about the likelihood of young Syrians joining extremist groups if they go without education are exaggerated, racist, and sometimes Islamophobic generalizations. These beliefs emanate from the waves of migration to Europe, recent terrorist attacks, and accusations against Syrians which are often baseless. Indeed, what is said about the nature of Syrian civilization is wrong—it is moderate and tolerant. However, it is possible that some Syrians may turn to violence because of the obstacles they face, and their feelings of frustration and despair.

Certainly, there are international organizations, academics, groups, and individuals in civil society working to provide refugees with education. These people are aware of the dangers of the crisis, and call for the consideration of higher education as a priority, alongside food, shelter, and primary education. Although the considerable support that has been given to Syrian students and academics is both praiseworthy and highly appreciated, all of these organizations and bodies acknowledge that it is not enough.

The sum total of all the grants and scholarships given to Syrian students since the start of the crisis, and those that have been promised for the coming years, does not exceed several thousand. As such, there is a huge gap between the opportunities provided and their demand. We are talking about more than 100,000 refugees and more than 120,000 IDPs without higher education. IDPs, in particular, cannot access these grants and nor will they be able to in the future.

Given this situation, it has become paramount to hold an international conference, which would have appropriate representation from ministries of higher education, university leaders, and political representatives from various states. Its mission should be to create a clear strategy, with a concrete timeframe that reflects the pressing need to act with speed. The agenda should highlight the necessity of sourcing sufficient funding to solve the crisis of elementary, secondary, and university education for Syrian refugees and displaced people.

Because of the widening gap between the need and what is offered, the constant increase in the numbers of refugees and displaced Syrians, and the unlikelihood of resolving the Syrian crisis in the near future, I see that the best solution for the issue of higher education is to set up a Syrian university in southern Turkey, where most Syrian refugees reside. The Turkish government has proven to be cooperative and supportive, and its universities could provide resources and facilities.

This project would have some negatives, chiefly among them:

  1. It would need additional funding which is already scarce.
  2. Targeting a large number of students would lower the standard of education, placing additional strain on them finding work after graduation as neighboring countries may not recognize their degrees.

However, this project would have many distinctive qualities:

  1. This university would have the ability to absorb more than 100,000 students. For example, by modelling the project after the Damascus University, which has about 160,000 students, it would be able to absorb most the refugee and IDP students.
  2. All displaced Syrian academics (both internally and externally) could be absorbed at a lower expense than what it would cost to give a relatively small number of them fellowships.
  3. By being located on the Turkish-Syrian border, this university could provide the opportunity for thousands of refugees and IDPs to enroll.
  4. Students who have had their studies disrupted at a certain stage should be allowed to continue their education from that point.
  5. The university should operate in Arabic to avoid a linguistic barrier.
  6. The material, methods, structure, and way of teaching should be the same as that to which Syrian students are accustomed, to facilitate them picking up their studies again after years of disruption.
  7. As all Syrian universities follow the same curriculum, the project would be based around a uniform course schedule.

Although a project to open a Syrian university in Turkey with funding from both Qatar and Turkey is currently under consideration, and several steps to implement it may have already been taken, this Qatari-Turkish university would only allow for the absorption of 7,000 students according to its plans. But through the recognition and support of international states, the project could be scaled up significantly in order to be successfully impactful.

Finally, I would like to extend my sincere thanks and appreciation to all those individuals and organizations who are striving to deal with this crisis, and to all those who are working to find a strategic solution to this crisis. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like it is going to end any time soon and we will continue to need your support.