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Plea to universities to alleviate Syria’s brain drain

The Institute of International Education, or IIE, wants every one of the 15,000 universities around the world to offer a tuition-free place to one Syrian student and rescue one Syrian academic displaced by the civil war.

IIE President Allan Goodman made the call to help alleviate the brain drain of people needed to rebuild Syria once the conflict is over at the International Higher Education Forum organised by Universities UK in London this week.

The conference also heard from Christian Müller, director of strategy for the German Academic Exchange Service, or DAAD, about Germany’s efforts to help both Syrian students and scholars trapped in refugee camps in neighbouring countries like Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan and to support the integration of those who make it to Germany.

Müller said more than a million refugees were registered in Germany in 2015, with numbers dropping to 350,000 in 2016. More than 40% came from Syria, with large numbers also from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Self-disclosure by the refugees showed a surprisingly high number with higher education experience or a first degree, at 17.8%. A further 20.4% were high school leavers or students.

“Interestingly lack of documentation is not an issue as 90% bring at least a digital copy of their educational experience,” said Müller.

Refugees wanting to complete their education in Germany are tested and their language ability in English and German assessed, he explained.

Scholarships are unnecessary as German universities do not charge tuition fees, but funding support is made available to German universities for preparatory and orientation courses as well as language classes. Refugee students are also given money for accommodation in the form of a grant or loan.

Müller said: “The number of actual enrolments is still pretty low as the legal processes take far too long, but we expect between 10,000 and 15,000 refugee students to enter our universities in the next two to three years.

“Syrian students perform very well and their German language abilities are very good,” said Müller, who praised the university sector for its “tolerant and giving” nature.

Harnessing support of academics

Also speaking at the session on 'Overcoming an Interrupted Education: Refugees as international students and universities in exile' was Ben Webster, founder and director of the Jamiya Project, which is harnessing the resources of displaced Syrian academics to support Syrian refugees unable to attend university.

He said that the refugee crisis was not simply a European issue, as 84% of those displaced end up in the developing world. “Lebanon alone has 1.1 million refugees,” he pointed out.

Looking at the numbers of university staff and students, Webster said: “Over 2,000 Syrian academics have left the country since the start of the conflict and 108,000 Syrian students are not accessing higher education, which is similar to the total number of undergraduates at the University of London.”

Webster said the Jamiya Project is working with Sweden’s University of Gothenburg on two pilot courses in Jordan, developed by Syrian and Swedish academics and delivered using a blended learning method.

The courses are in applied IT and global studies, delivered in Arabic and certified by the Swedish university.

“We are getting displaced academics to work with the students,” said Webster, who added that using online and blended methods of teaching is challenging, as online education was not widely accepted or valued in Syria.

“Syrian students are unfamiliar with independent learning,” he said, but digital technology is proving essential in contacting the students in the refugee camps and elsewhere in the region.

“Tutors find WhatsApp is a very effective way of reaching their students. It is a native technology for the students,” said Webster.

Gordon Slaven, a former head of education at the British Council who now runs his own consultancy service, said that despite the difficulties of getting visas for displaced Syrian students and academics there were around 20 British universities active in the region.

He praised the new Platform for Education in Emergencies Response, or PEER, the global clearinghouse created by the IIE and the Catalyst Foundation for Universal Education, which is helping to identify scholarships and opportunities and connecting refugee students with resources, as University World News reported earlier this month.

Müller said it was important to treat those people being supported in countries like Germany as international students rather than simply as refugee students.

“These are the future leaders for the reconstruction of Syrian higher education and society,” he said.

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist who runs De la Cour Communications. He regularly blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website.

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