Millions of Syrians have moved to Turkey since the war started in 2011. According to official figures, Turkey currently hosts more than 2.5 million Syrian refugees, although it is hard to determine the exact number.
The Institute of International Education or IIE’s report on Syrian students and scholars in Turkey, We Will Stop Here and Go No Further, argued that around 10% of the Syrian population in Turkey might be considered as of university age and among them around 25% might have been eligible for higher education in pre-war Syria.
According to this estimate, Turkey may have more than 60,000 Syrian refugees who have an interest in higher education. This figure basically shows the urgent need for higher education opportunities for Syrian refugees in Turkey. How will Turkey respond to this huge interest, particularly since it has been trying to expand higher education opportunities for its own youth for a long time?
Although Turkey’s higher education sector has been expanding very rapidly in the past decade, the net enrolment of Turkish youth in higher education is still less than 40%. Despite this, the Turkish government immediately initiated several policies to facilitate the enrolment of Syrian youth in universities in Turkey.
The IIE’s report acknowledged this very clearly by stating that ‘‘unlike the other countries hosting large numbers of Syrian refugees, the government of Turkey has consistently taken proactive measures to grant Syrian university students opportunities to continue their studies in Turkey’’.
Syrian students have always been able to apply to universities in Turkey as international students. Even before the war Turkey was host to numerous Syrian higher education students. Beginning in the 2013-14 academic year, however, Turkey’s Council of Higher Education, known as YÖK, decided to ease the transfer of students from Syrian universities to Turkish universities.
All students from Syrian universities were allowed to enrol in seven Turkish universities in the south-eastern part of Turkey as 'guest students' even if they did not have any proper documentation, including transcripts. This decision was later expanded to include all public higher education institutions.
Guest students (from Syria) are allowed to take courses and exams and be graded, but they cannot graduate from the programmes unless they have the necessary documents (such as a passport, transcripts from their previous institutions, etc) to be permanent students.
The initial idea behind this plan was that these students could then go back to their country and continue their education without losing time after the war had ended. However, the war has continued longer than most people were expecting.
Meanwhile, many students have been completing their secondary education in Turkey or have passed high school completion exams organised by international initiatives or the Syrian Interim Government. The Turkish Ministry of National Education has also eased the equivalency process of high school diplomas for Syrian students. As a result, thousands of Syrian youth have become eligible to enrol in Turkish universities as regular international students.
While the number of Syrian refugees who are eligible to attend higher education institutions has been increasing quickly, there are also some challenges impeding more Syrian youth from actually enrolling in Turkish universities.
First, the language barrier has been a constant issue, although the Ministry of National Education, universities and many NGOs have been organising Turkish language courses for all Syrian refugees regardless of their age.
Second, universities in Turkey have only been able to accept Syrian students according to their international student quotas that are open for students from all over the world. Since Turkish universities have become very popular for international students over the past few years, it has become very hard for most Syrian students to get admission to universities because of the quotas.
Therefore, founding an international university specifically for Syrian students in the southeastern part of Turkey has been discussed.
Almost a year ago, there were some news reports about the Turkish and Qatari governments’ joint efforts to establish such a university. An international university offering programmes in commonly used languages in the region such as Arabic rather than just Turkish and English might have a very positive impact on Syrian refugees’ access to higher education in Turkey.
Such a university could also make it possible for many Syrian refugee academics to continue their teaching and research practices. In addition, it could attract students from all Middle Eastern countries and contribute to their development.
However, there has been no official news about the establishment of this university yet. Although the international university project is not yet certain, the Turkish government is continuing its efforts to solve the problems related to Syrian refugees’ access to higher education.
For example, YÖK made another very important exception for prospective Syrian students at the beginning of 2015. Eight universities in the south-eastern part of Turkey were allowed to open programmes in Turkish or other languages just for Syrian students. This decision made it possible to both open Arabic programmes in those universities and set specific quotas just for Syrian students.
There are also some financial challenges for Syrian higher education students in Turkey. Although the Turkish government has waived tuition fees for Syrian students enrolled in Turkish public universities, there are, of course, other living costs for these students.
Türkiye Scholarships are designed for foreign citizens who want to study in Turkish universities and have been serving as a very important financial resource for Syrian students. For the past few years, Turkey has been distributing these scholarships annually to around 4,000 foreign students from over 150 countries.
Although Syrian citizens have received an ample share of these scholarships over the years, it was not seen to be enough. Therefore, the Turkish government launched a specific scholarship programme in 2014 to provide Syrian students with 5,000 full scholarships over five years.
These scholarships cover all university fees and include a generous monthly stipend, free accommodation and health insurance. These scholarships have allowed many young Syrians to continue their education and support their families.
With the help of these initiatives, the number of Syrian higher education students in Turkey has increased dramatically over the past few years. In the 2011-12 academic year, there were only 608 Syrian students in Turkish universities. This number increased to 1,785 in the 2013-14 academic year and reached 5,560 in the 2014-15 academic year – and these figures do not include guest students.
There is no doubt that the Turkish government has put significant effort into both creating more space for Syrian refugees in Turkish universities and providing direct (scholarships) or indirect (waiving fees) financial support to them.
Official figures clearly show that these efforts have paid off. However, it is also very clear that the number of refugees who are interested in higher education will continue to increase very rapidly. Now, it is time for international higher education communities to pay more attention to the higher education needs of Syrian refugees and support Turkey’s efforts.
International support might initially be directed to two areas.
First, there is an urgent need to create more places for Syrian prospective students in other countries. Countries around the world could create scholarships specifically for Syrian citizens and host them in their institutions as Turkey has been doing.
Second, just as the UN and Spark Foundation have done, international organisations could provide scholarships to thousands of Syrian students who are already enrolled in Turkish universities.
We must all accept that education opportunities are vitally important for Syrian refugees to both enable their transition to new societies and keep them away from radicalisation. It is vital that international higher education communities respond to this issue urgently.
Dr Sedat Gumus is an associate professor at Necmettin Erbakan University in Konya, Turkey. He is currently a visiting scholar at the Institute of Higher Education at the University of Georgia, Athens, in the United States. Previously, he worked as a coordinator of international relationships in Turkey’s Council of Higher Education, YÖK. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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