What chance for Syrians to study?

Before the conflict began in 2011, there were over 500,000 people enrolled in some form of higher education in Syria. Five harsh years later and 11 million people – half of the population – have been displaced and around six million have left the country and are mainly living as refugees in neighbouring countries.

Many of these are young people who want a higher education, but few are getting the chance to study. At the Third Arab-Euro Conference on Higher Education in Barcelona, Spain on 25-27 May, academics and university leaders discussed what universities in Europe and the Middle East are doing to welcome refugees and what more should be done.

Around 150 young Syrians will start studying at the Free University of Brussels, or VUB, in September this year as part of the VUB’s Welcome Student Refugees Programme. Programme co-ordinator Mohammad Salman, originally from Syria himself, has spent hundreds of hours talking to the 800 applicants since the initiative began last year.

He is confident that the university’s approach of providing language training but otherwise treating these students the same as everyone else will pay off.

“These are people who have their academic credentials and they are extremely motivated,” he says.

Koen Van den Abeele, leader of VUB’s refugee taskforce, believes that the problems many foresee with accepting and integrating refugee students are far less serious than people make out.

“For us, the universities which already have some practical experience with the issue, we tend to have a very different opinion from those universities which are still thinking about all the problems,” he says. “Universities do have the capacity to make the right arrangements.”

The Technical University of Berlin, or TUB, is another institution that has been quick to welcome an intake of young Syrians. Lack of familiarity with German is the main problem they experience, according to Christian Thomsen, TUB’s president, so the university dedicates most of the special funds it gets for refugee students to language training, especially for academic purposes.

“After that, they are just regular students, there is no easy way into a particular discipline,” he says.

For TUB Director of Student Affairs Abraham van Veen, it is important that universities are clear on what motivates them. "The refugees are part of our society so it is part of my responsibility to help them shape our future,” he says. “We are not doing charity, it is all to do with giving young people an opportunity based on the skills that they already have.”

Dutch NGO SPARK started providing short courses for Syrian refugees in September 2015 – it currently has more than 500 students each enrolled in Lebanon and Jordan, with smaller numbers in Turkey and Iraq. Some 30% of places on its courses are open to local people.

Providing education in situ is not only much cheaper than providing scholarships to study in Europe, but it also has the advantage of keeping people closer to their home country so they may be more likely to return once conditions allow, according to Firas Deep of SPARK. There are other less tangible benefits for people who as a rule are not allowed to legally work.

“Those students do not just need food or a mattress to sleep on, they really need hope for the future,” says Deep. “Higher education is not a luxury anymore, it is a necessity.”

Kiron, an online Berlin-based university set up in 2015 specifically to provide refugees with education, offers a different model. Students can enrol on a choice of four online courses provided by MOOCs – massive open online courses.

They spend two years earning ECTS credits with the aim of transferring to one of a network of 19 partner universities to complete their degrees. Courses are free of charge, the only documentation required is proof of refugee status and the two-year period gives the students time to get their legal status sorted. The first pilot group of 1,250 students started in October 2015 and 80% of these are Syrians.

Kiron has begun exploring the possibility of extending operations into Jordan and Turkey, both countries with high numbers of Syrian refugees, but issues to do with the absence of official recognition of MOOCs are a barrier.

“We have seen interest, especially from Turkey,” says Kiron’s Sanja Sontor, “but the problem is that the legal framework they operate in does not allow then to accept MOOCs.”

Inside Syria

Inside Syria, the war has had a brutal effect on higher education. Several of the country’s eight public universities have gone out of service while many of the 23 private universities have been forced to move to temporary, safer locations.

Enrolment as a proportion of 18 to 22 year-olds has dropped from 25% pre-conflict to 10% today, according to Najib Abdul Wahed, Syria’s deputy minister of higher education until 2013.

More than 40% of faculty members have left the country so universities have lost some of their best academic capital, while the vast majority of Syrians studying for doctorate on scholarships have opted to stay abroad, he estimates.

Universities in safer locations have opened their doors to students from unsafe locations – “this was a good response to the problem but if the crisis continues, then we may start to worry about quality,” says Abdul Wahed.

Amjad Ayoub, vice-president at Al-Hawash Private University in Syria, criticises the way Syrian universities have been cut off from the outside world by sanctions and the demise of international co-operation. “Teaching one student in Spain is going to cost about 15 times what it would cost to educate a Syrian student here so people should support Syrian universities,” he says.

The Syrian Virtual University or SVU, which is public and online, has seen enrolments shoot up as the situation in Syria has deteriorated – increasing from just under 3,000 in 2012-13 to 7,000 in 2014-15. As a response to the numbers of its students who are now refugees, in 2014 SVU opened centres in several Middle Eastern cities, including Istanbul, Beirut and Riyadh where students can sit their exams.

The Syrian diaspora is also active. One example is Jusoor, an association of Syrian expatriates which provides scholarships to students whose education has been disrupted by the war. In four years, it has awarded almost 400 scholarships.

Abdul Wahed welcomes initiatives such as these. “Preparing students to access higher education in surrounding countries is a very successful model which can lead to opportunities at European and regional universities,” he says. “Harnessing technology to provide higher education to displaced people is good too.”

But while there is a lot of good work being done, the lack of an overall framework reduces the impact and means energy can be wasted – a recent scholarship programme offered by the German Academic Exchange Service, DAAD, for instance received 4,000 applications for just 200 places. Abdul Wahed believes there is a need for an organisation to take on a role as a central clearinghouse.