Rapid change in the international higher education landscape has paved the way for exciting new opportunities. Government and corporate investment in talent development has resulted in increased educational exchange with different countries and regions and new universities and technologies have made partnerships possible in places formerly out of reach.
Much of this growth in international education is positive. But unfortunately, the demand that is growing the fastest these days is the one that is the least welcome: the need for emergency assistance for students and scholars from countries in conflict.
The crisis in Syria, now entering its sixth year, presents a challenge to the future of Syria that is at once broader, more intense and more lasting than the previous academic emergencies.
What began as a rapid response effort to offer emergency scholarships to individual students, through the Institute of International Education or IIE’s Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis, and fellowships to professors who faced particular dangers, through IIE's Scholar Rescue Fund, has grown to a systemic need to find a way to preserve the knowledge base of the professoriate and avoid creating a lost generation of young people without access to education.
Prior to the conflict, Syria was home to some of the largest and most prestigious higher education institutions in the region. UNESCO statistics show that, on the eve of the conflict, a quarter of Syria’s young people were obtaining post-secondary education, and approximately 8,000 faculty members were teaching and conducting research in Syria.
Among a refugee population of nearly five million people, we estimate that as many as 2,000 university professionals and a minimum of 100,000 university-qualified students are now cut off from their paths to education and employment.
It has become increasingly evident that the Syrian education system is threatened in a more profound way, as many colleges and universities have been completely disrupted, and the size of the refugee crisis has grown to such overwhelming proportions.
Higher education in crisis
In 2012, IIE launched the Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis, inviting universities to join by providing scholarships to Syrian students whose education was disrupted by crisis, with an opportunity to begin or continue their studies in a safe environment and develop the skills needed to rebuild their country in the future.
IIE and the consortium members have provided more than 150 scholarships to Syrians and we hope to increase that number in 2016 by encouraging more universities to offer scholarships and by raising supplemental funds to help offset travel and living expenses.
We are also reaching out to donors to contribute to IIE’s Emergency Student Fund, which provides urgent funding to international students currently studying in the United States and whose sources of support have been impacted by natural disaster or crisis.
Since 2010, the IIE Emergency Student Fund has provided more than US$2 million in emergency grants to more than 700 students from Japan, Haiti, Thailand, Libya, the Philippines, Iran and Syria.
These small grants to students leverage an average of three times as much additional funding as host universities are requested to provide tuition relief, housing and meal plans to the students who receive them. IIE has issued Emergency Student Fund grants to a total of 89 Syrian students at more than 40 US universities in the past few years, with IIE funding and additional support from private donors and NGOs.
In February, we invited US universities to nominate their students from Syria – and Yemen – for a new round of Emergency Student Fund grants and IIE will be issuing these emergency grants later this month, to enable students who are at risk of having to drop out of university due to financial need to be able to continue their education for the current Spring 2016 term.
Priority will be given to those with the most urgent financial need and those closest to graduation. When they complete their degrees they will be better able to assist their families and contribute to rebuilding their communities.
From camps to campus
Based on this successful model, IIE is piloting “From Camps to Campus”, a project to provide scholarships to Syrian refugee students in Jordan to enable them to continue their education at nearby universities.
This pragmatic model supports students who have already enrolled at Jordanian universities and who remain in good academic standing but have dropped out – or are at risk of dropping out – for financial reasons. The scholarships are for students who currently live in refugee camps or in surrounding cities and towns. The selection process prioritises students in fields critical to rebuilding Syria.
The first six scholarship recipients on this programme resumed their studies at Jordanian universities in 2015. All face extreme financial hardship and are suffering the emotional, physical and academic toll of dislocation from home and sometimes family.
Some students have lost parents in the conflict; others are part of large extended family groups often supported by only one working adult, where the families cannot afford to prioritise the expense of higher education.
We are monitoring these students carefully to determine the factors that will help them to remain at university and what is needed to achieve academic success. We hope to be able to fine-tune this model as needed and attract additional funds to replicate and expand the pilot where possible in the coming year.
We encourage other countries and funders to consider this model as well since it is more practical and cost-effective to educate refugees in countries where they are already living.
These students are so close to completing their higher education, and keeping them at university both prepares them for a productive future and helps to fend off the despair of being separated from their homes with little prospect for advancement. The IIE Scholar Rescue Fund has also provided fellowship support to several Syrian professors to enable them to serve as visiting scholars at universities in Jordan.
A need to scale up efforts
Keeping these students, professors and researchers from Syria engaged in higher education represents the best chance to keep them from hopelessness or radicalisation in the near term, and the best chance to rebuild the country after the current violence subsides. But the actual number we can help now is small compared to the need.
The global higher education community has made considerable progress in assisting displaced Syrian students and professors on a case-by-case basis, with several government ministries and institutions stepping up to provide safe havens at universities in countries like Portugal, Germany, Norway and Finland.
Germany has also begun giving scholarships to Syrian students for masters degree programmes in Jordan, focusing on conflict resolution and other priority topics. And last week’s news highlighted new efforts by the Canadian government and communities to take in and assist Syrian refugees.
It is imperative for NGOs, foundations and governments in other countries to help provide funding and institutional support on a larger scale so that higher education institutions can scale up the education initiatives that are working.
Allan E Goodman is president and CEO of the Institute of International Education.
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