Widening access to higher education for Syrian refugees

It was just over three years ago that Basel Al Noserat, a 25-year-old from southern Syria, arrived in Za’atri refugee camp. The civil war engulfing his home country had forced his family to seek safe haven in neighbouring Jordan, where they were placed in the dusty camp that has since become Jordan’s fourth-largest population centre.

In Syria, Basel studied engineering at a university in Damascus, working each summer between semesters to help support his family. “My family encouraged me to pursue my education,” he said. “Education is very important for them.”

Yet in Jordan, his educational aspirations seemed all but doomed. While approximately a quarter of Syrians aged 18-24 were enrolled in some form of higher education before the war – a figure that was steadily increasing – five years of conflict have taken their toll on Syrian youth living in displacement.

Out of an estimated four million refugees, about 450,000 are between the ages of 18 and 22. While the UNESCO Institute for Statistics estimates, based on pre-war enrolment rates, that approximately 90,000-110,000 Syrian refugee youth are qualified for higher education, fewer than 6% are actually enrolled.

Refugees across the Middle East face a variety of hurdles in accessing higher education, including legal restrictions, political tensions over the refugee presence and prohibitive documentation requirements.

In Jordan, students formerly enrolled in Syrian universities may lack the necessary paperwork to enable them to be placed into the appropriate year-level, while refugees lacking original high school diplomas or transcripts face an uphill battle to enrol in the first place. In Turkey, the language barrier presents a challenge for Arabic-speaking students.

Unaffordable cost of higher education

Perhaps the most significant challenge is that, for the vast majority of refugee students, the costs of higher education are simply beyond their reach. The World Bank and the UN refugee agency UNHCR estimate that at least 1.7 million refugees are unable to afford even basic necessities – seven out of 10 registered refugees living in Jordan and Lebanon are impoverished.

Because the vast majority of refugees – more than 80% – live in urban areas, rent is often the largest expenditure for families. Rents have more than tripled in some refugee-dense areas in Jordan since the start of the crisis and refugees must dip deeply into any savings or income just to keep a roof over their heads. In Lebanon refugees regularly pay up to 90% of their income on rent.

With practically no legal livelihood opportunities and diminishing humanitarian assistance, former students may instead resort to illegal work – subject to lower wages and exploitation – instead of re-enrolling in school.

In Jordan, Syrian students must pay foreigner rates to enrol in universities, costing an estimated US$19,000 dollars over four years (including tuition, books and a living stipend). For the more than two-thirds of refugee families in Jordan with a monthly income of less than US$282, the sum is insurmountable.

As the Syrian conflict persists into a sixth year, NGOs, governments, universities and even private sector organisations across the globe have increasingly sought to develop solutions to the higher education deficit facing Syrian refugees.

Regional conferences have been held in Istanbul and Amman over the past year, focusing on strengthening higher education delivery for Syrian refugees.


While an increasing number of scholarships exist for refugees in the Middle East to study in third countries, demand far outstrips available resources. Al-Fanar Media, a regional news source on higher education, painted a disheartening statistical picture in outlining the proportionally tiny number of successful applicants for various external scholarships.

Actors involved in the higher education response have also pushed for solutions within the Middle East as a more cost-efficient means of expanding Syrian access to higher education.

In countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt, where Arabic is the primary language of instruction, a number of scholarship opportunities are being offered through both NGOs, such as UNHCR’s DAFI scholarship, and the private sector to study at host country universities.

In Turkey and Lebanon, some efforts have focused on equipping students with the language skills needed to enrol in university. Other organisations in Turkey have adopted the somewhat controversial strategy of establishing universities specifically for Syrian students which, while addressing language and curricular barriers, goes against the UNHCR strategy of refugee integration.

Online education has also gained increased attention, with options ranging from single courses to accredited online degree programmes.

While differing higher education efforts would certainly benefit from better coordination and information dissemination among Syrian youth, there is no single approach or solution to the higher education crisis facing Syrian refugees.

The diversity of programme preferences and educational background of students indicated through surveys such as UNESCO’s Jami3ti initiative underscore the need for both multiple options for Syrian refugees interested in continuing their education and further research on refugee learning needs.

Hidden costs

These programmes must be united, however, in an awareness of the hidden costs faced by refugees beyond the direct cost of higher education. Scholarships and tertiary educational programming that fail to account for refugees’ socio-economic status and the cost of living fall short of the integrative approach necessary for equal educational access.

Research from the Institute of International Education and the University of California, Davis indicates that the most vulnerable refugee groups are already being left out. Students like Basel, who worked in Syria during the summer to support his education during the school year, would be unable to access higher education even if they were previously enrolled in Syria.

Refugees without the resources to afford living costs are also being shut out of some private sector initiatives aimed at expanding higher education. The Lebanese Association for Scientific Research’s university funding programme informally sorts out poorer applicants on the logic that these students would be more likely to drop out to support their families.

In an interview with Elizabeth Redden, Allan Goodman, the president of the Institute of International Education, noted: “We’ve learned that a scholarship is not enough… what we have to come up with is the airfare and ticket to get them out of Syria or out of the camp to the US or to Europe and the living expenses while they’re a student. It’s not enough just to say 'tuition-free' or go to countries where tuition is free. You’ve also got to have the resources for that supplemental grant.”

Sustainable solutions

Despite recent commitments by the European Union and other donors to devote additional funding to higher education, diminishing humanitarian assistance across the board indicates an urgent need for holistic, sustainable solutions to the challenge of higher education.

Without the right to work, for example, refugees living in the Middle East will not only be unable to support themselves during university, but will graduate only to find themselves in limbo once again.

Combining degree programmes with vocational opportunities in countries such as Jordan, which is cautiously warming to the idea of Syrian work permits (though the permits appear to largely be for unskilled labour), might offer one possible solution.

Though his family returned to Syria after a year and a half in Jordan – preferring to live in fear of death rather than trapped in a camp in Jordan – Basel remained in Za’atri, working with a youth mentorship programme implemented by Questscope, an international organisation.

Despite leaving university three years before, he held onto his hope for a second chance. Through his contacts in international organisations, he found out about a scholarship for study at Western University in Canada, supported in part by the World University Service of Canada's Student Refugee Program. In December, he arrived in Ontario to begin studying for his degree in civil engineering.

Although he completed three and a half years of university in Syria, he must start from the beginning in Canada. Yet, he noted: “I am not upset about starting over because I compare my situation with the people in Syria and until now they can’t finish their education… No one is going to university. I feel my situation is very good and I’m comfortable in Canada because the people are kind and friendly here.”

For the thousands of young Syrians left behind, struggling to pursue their educational dreams, expanding access to higher education is more vital than ever as educational loss deepens and the refugee crisis persists.

Reva Dhingra was a 2014-15 Fulbright fellow in Amman, Jordan, and currently works with the Syria Regional Response Unit of the International Rescue Committee in New York.

* Photo: Mohammed and Hanaa struggle to make ends meet in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, but back in Syria before the war they both studied at university. Photo credit: UNHCR/Shawn Baldwin.

The second part of this Special Report on higher education for refugees will be published in next week’s issue of University World News.