21 November 2017 Register to receive our free newsletter by email each week
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Beyond the Syrian refugee crisis

The Syrian refugee crisis has already been going on for a year and its end is not yet in sight: the war goes on and the economic, social, and political situation in the country itself and in neighbouring countries is worsening. The numbers of refugees arriving in Europe daily is still high and resistance is increasing.

After a slow initial reaction from the higher education community, the number of initiatives launched by individual institutions, donor organisations and NGOs has been remarkable, even though these actions are only solving a minor part of an immense problem.

In its recent newsletter, Al-Fanar Media showed clearly how access to higher education in neighbouring countries like Iraq, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey is limited to a very small proportion of Syrian students, and this week University World News republishes an impressive appeal by a Syrian academic refugee to universities in neighbouring countries to use him and his colleagues to help educate young Syrian refugees.

There is still a long way to go to increase access for Syrian youth to higher education. A whole generation seems doomed to be lost.

Increased mobility

The response to the Syrian refugee crisis provides lessons about the important role education in general, and higher education in particular, can play in addressing the increasing mobility of (illegal) immigrants and refugees around the world.

Where politicians see building gates and camps (as in Europe) and walls (as in the United States) as their only solutions and do their best to contain the problem in the bordering countries which are already struggling with considerable numbers of refugees, there is no long-term vision of how to avoid an increase in illegal immigration or how to solve the problems at their root, in the regions themselves.

Most developed countries have reduced their development aid budgets over the past years and-or have aligned them more with their commercial interests. Education, and in particular higher education capacity building in developing countries, is under financial constraints.

At the same time, one can see an increasing focus on competition for international talent needed to fill the gaps in the knowledge economies. How is it possible that Europe, the United States and Australia invest in recruiting international students and scholars while at the same time ignoring the presence of potential talent among refugees and immigrants already in their countries and in camps?

Increasing higher education capacity in neighbouring countries to address the needs of refugees there would be a tremendously useful investment. Canada is a positive exception with its acceptance of 25,000 refugees, including students from Syria.

It might already be too late for the current Syrian youth still living in the country or resettled in camps elsewhere, but to avoid future massive migration flows, increased investments in higher education in the region and in scholarship schemes to study abroad are a necessary and effective measure.

National governments and international entities like the World Bank, the European Commission and UNESCO should plan long-term strategies to increase higher education capacity and quality in the developing world, beginning with countries like Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, but also those in Central America and Africa.

Hans de Wit is director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, USA. dewitj@bc.edu
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