Academic rescue scheme for Syrian students expands

A vital lifeline has been extended to displaced Syrian students around the world, including more than 600 scholarships for university study.

At last week’s 2013 Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) annual meeting in New York, the Institute of International Education, or IIE, announced an expanded CGI commitment to action through collaboration with the Global Platform for Syrian Students and other partners to raise US$7 million in support.

The Syrian crisis and education

According to the UN Refugee Agency, there are now two million Syrian refugees, mainly in Iraq, Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, but also at least 14,000 who are registered in North Africa and another 8,000 in Sweden. It is estimated that 22.9% of them are males aged from 18 to 59, while 23.5% are females in the same age group.

The Syrian crisis, unleashed two years ago, has been devastating for young people and the education sector, with universities closing down, and in refugee camps, limited access to even basic education.

Students have also been targeted in retribution for their participation in protests. General violence has spilled over onto university campuses, with tragic bombings taking place at the University of Aleppo and the University of Damascus earlier this year.

Almost 40% of the country’s children have dropped out of school in the past academic year, according to the UN children's agency UNICEF, and more than 3,000 schools have been damaged or destroyed. A further 1,000 are being used to house displaced people.

The consortium and its support

The IIE Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis was formed a year ago as a CGI commitment by the IIE, Illinois Institute of Technology, Jusoor and the US Department of State. Now the IIE has united with the original partners as well as several new partners to expand the consortium on a global basis.

The consortium is also joining forces with Kaplan Test Prep International, University of California, Davis' Human Rights Initiative, Princess Basmah Bint Al Saud’s Global United Lanterns and, most significantly, the Global Platform for Syrian Students, to assist more displaced students in additional countries.

“As Syrian university labs and classrooms are being bombed, and students and professors killed, kidnapped and imprisoned, the international community has a singular chance to affect the future of the Syrian national academy and a moral imperative to do so,” said IIE President Allan Goodman.

The IIE describes itself is a world leader in the international exchange of people and ideas. A not-for-profit organisation founded in 1919, it has 19 offices and affiliates worldwide and more than 1,200 member institutions.

Through its Emergency Student Fund, it provides emergency grants to post-secondary students at accredited education institutions outside their home countries, whose sources of support have been affected by natural disaster or other crises.

Founded by former president of Portugal Jorge Sampaio, the Global Platform for Syrian Students is a multi-stakeholder initiative supported by a core group of partners including the IIE, the Council of Europe, the League of Arab States, the Union for the Mediterranean, and several governments. It relies on a network of higher education institutions, civil society organisations and the private sector.

The partners have committed US$3 million, but plan to raise another US$4 million in university commitments and funds from public and private sources. According to the IIE, this will provide the following assistance to Syrian students and scholars in the academic year 2013-14:
  • • 600 student scholarships: 200 in Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq; 100 in other countries of the Middle East and North African region; 100 in North America; 100 in Portugal and other European Union countries; and 100 in Brazil and other Latin American countries.
  • • 500 online test preparation courses provided free by Kaplan Test Prep International, to help students prepare for tests such as SAT, GMAT and GRE that they will need in order to apply to higher education institutions.
  • • 15 fellowships for Syrian scholars through the IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund. The fellowships will be matched by host universities worldwide.
  • • 10 grants to provide top-off funds to supplement consortium scholarships.
  • • Research and policy recommendations by the University of California, Davis' Human Rights Initiative.
  • • Student mentorship by members of Jusoor.
  • • Institutional mentorship by Illinois Institute of Technology.
The process

Daniela Kaisth, vice president of external affairs and IIE initiatives, told University World News that finding and selecting Syrian students required a fair amount of networking.

“We are doing outreach to find students through our network and partners, especially groups like Jusoor that help these students. Much of this is done electronically but we also partner with some groups on the ground where there are many Syrian refugees, such as UNHCR.

“One of our partners, University of California, Davis' Human Rights Initiative, is doing some very relevant work on the university-aged population among Syrian refugees, and is also helping us to get the word out about scholarships.”

Regarding selection, she said: “We have a simple and streamlined process to evaluate student credentials and then send their applications to universities offering scholarships. In general, each country and university will have its own process, but these details have not been worked out yet in all cases.”

For the 2012-13 academic year, the first 12 months of the effort, IIE estimated that the consortium raised US$3.8 million in total assistance to 100 Syrian students and scholars, while the IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund awarded 30 fellowships to highly threatened senior Syrian academics.

With private support, the IIE provided US$750,000 in fellowships to Syrian scholars, plus an additional US$750,000 in matching funds from host institutions.

Through the consortium, more than 30 institutions pledged to make full or partial tuition scholarships available to qualifying students. At the start of 2012-13, 13 of these higher education institutions had awarded a total of 70 full and partial tuition scholarships worth US$2,373,200.

When asked if credits from Syrian universities would be recognised and carried over, Kaisth replied that the IIE was uncertain about this. However, regarding Syrian professors: “In the experience of IIE's Scholar Rescue Fund, we find that – yes – their qualifications are recognised in other countries outside Syria.”

As far as IIE was aware, there would be no conditions attached to the scholarships in terms of students needing to stay in a host country after graduating. “The movement of Syrian students in and out of the country depends upon the government of Syria and the receiving countries. Our programme does not get involved in visa decisions for the students.”

At the beginning of September, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres told a news conference: “Of the total Syrian population of about 20 million, either inside or outside the country, one third is displaced and almost half is in need of assistance.

“What is appalling is that the first million fled Syria in two years. The second million fled Syria in six months.”

The emergency support provided by the IIE and its partners will at least alleviate some of the suffering of these victims of the war.