Complex barriers to refugees accessing university

Since the outbreak of the civil war in March 2011, an estimated 11 million Syrians have fled their homes, and one-quarter of the Syrian population are now refugees or asylum seekers.

Within the Middle East and North Africa or MENA region, 4.9 million Syrian refugees are currently registered with the UN refugee agency UNHCR. Despite the large number of refugees of university age living in these countries, very few are enrolled in higher education.

Research conducted by St Mary’s University, Twickenham, in partnership with the British Council and UNHCR, examines Syrian youths’ perceptions and experiences of the availability, accessibility, acceptability and adaptability of higher education opportunities currently on offer for refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.

Interest in higher education

It reveals that interest in higher education among Syrian refugees in the MENA region is extremely high.

Although males and females express an equally high desire to pursue higher education, their reasons for wanting to continue their studies are often gendered. These differences reflect the different roles that higher education plays in men’s and women’s lives in Syrian society, as well as the differential impact it has on men’s and women’s access to the labour market.

As ‘breadwinners’ for their families, Syrian males view higher education primarily in economic terms and as particularly important for securing livelihoods, advancing economically, ensuring economic mobility and elevating their social position.

On the other hand, females are free to pursue higher education for a wider range of purposes. However, as cultural norms discourage all but professional employment for women, Syrian females have to achieve a high level of education in order for them to enter the labour market.

Due to increased economic hardship, the absence of males and the increased prevalence of female-headed households within the Syrian community, young people noted how the war has actually encouraged some parents to be more willing to allow their daughters to undertake further studies.

On the other hand, higher education also has the potential to socially disadvantage females if it is perceived to enable them to undermine male authority within the home. These examples illustrate how there are complex, and often contradictory, social and economic forces that are shaping the educational aspirations of Syrian females in the MENA region.

Syrian females who are not able to continue their education are likely to remain at home helping their mothers with domestic work, be married early or restricted to employment within home-based or female-only contexts in roles that fall within acceptable gender norms.

On the other hand, males who are not able to continue their education are likely to work illegally in unregulated employment contexts in the informal sector, be tempted to cross the Mediterranean to Europe in search of employment opportunities or return to Syria to fight in the war.

Although the vast majority of youth out of education indicated that they want to continue their studies, they are unaware of any re-entry mechanisms that would enable them to do so.

Availability of higher education opportunities

It is not a lack of higher education opportunities available to refugees that is of concern. Rather, it is the availability of scholarships that enables them to take up these opportunities.

Young Syrians in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey feel that scholarship provision for refugees is inadequate in terms of quantity: the overall number of scholarships provided for refugees does not meet demand; there is inadequate scholarship provision for postgraduate study; available scholarships are limited to certain subject areas, at certain levels of study and at certain universities; and vulnerable groups – that is, youth with disabilities, ‘overage’ learners, LGBT youth, Palestinians from Syria, refugees who live alone – are often insufficiently catered for.

Students also have concerns that scholarships provided for refugees generally only address the direct costs of education (that is, tuition); do not cover the full programme of study (that is, cover only one year); do not cover all semesters (that is, exclude the summer semester) and payment is provided at infrequent intervals.

The youth feel that there is inadequate information provided for them on available scholarships, as well as insufficient guidance on how to apply for them (especially in the Arabic language).

Accessibility of higher education opportunities

Higher education opportunities that are available for refugees are not necessarily accessible to all individuals due to particular home or community and educational institution-based factors.

Home and community-based factors that make existing higher education opportunities inaccessible include cultural traditions, gender roles and relations. Syrian females, for example, almost always need permission from a male ‘guardian’ to further their studies.

Reasons why this support might be withheld include: concerns over competition with men and challenge to male authority; fear of inappropriate ‘mixing’ between males and females in educational spaces; and lack of time for women to undertake housework and childcare (culturally assigned roles for females in Syrian society).

Educational institution-based factors that make existing higher education opportunities inaccessible include: documentation requirements (identity documents and proof of former study); issues related to language of instruction (English in Jordan and Lebanon, Turkish in Turkey); lack of recognition of ‘opposition certificates’ (i’tilaf) in Jordan and Lebanon; rigid institutional practices (that is, fixed enrolment deadlines, rigid course scheduling and timetabling); the lack of childcare facilities available for married students; and transportation issues and long commutes, which cause female youth discomfort and expose male youth to security risks.

Acceptability of higher education opportunities

Even if higher education opportunities are available and accessible, they may not be acceptable. Young Syrians noted that education provided for refugees is often of poor quality.

Particularly in public universities in the region, they complained of outdated and theoretical curricula; a weak relationship between universities and the business sector; poor learning facilities; poor quality of teaching (top-down pedagogical approaches) and a lack of research opportunities.

While students attending fee-paying private universities generally felt more satisfied with the quality of their education, complaints about the theoretical nature of their studies, the weak research culture and the lack of recognition of academic qualifications by employers (particularly for science students) were the same as for students attending public universities.

On the other hand, students attending technical and vocational education and training, or TVET, programmes generally expressed a high degree of satisfaction with the quality of education they received. However, TVET was generally viewed as ‘less desirable’ and as merely a ‘stepping stone’ towards their ‘real’ goal of getting a university degree.

While young people valued the non-formal education programmes provided for refugees by local and international NGOs as opportunities to develop new skills and to be part of a community while in exile, they felt that these ‘one size fits all’ programmes did not enable them to progress; did not provide them with a recognised certificate or transferable credits upon completion; and often promoted employment paths based on gendered stereotypes, such as ‘childcare’ courses for women.

There was also concern about bullying and discrimination, which generally took the form of ‘hate speech’ from classmates or intended or unintended exclusion by education providers.

Adaptability of higher education opportunities

The war in Syria has posed unique challenges for donors and higher education providers, who have had to think creatively about how to provide enough quality higher education spaces and to adapt them to the special needs of refugees. Two strategies receiving a lot of attention have been online learning and international scholarships.

While some Syrians acknowledged that online learning could benefit certain vulnerable groups, the majority felt that online learning was the least desirable type of education.

Students also expressed concern about the lack of accreditation and poor interactivity of most online programmes. They noted that it would be difficult to motivate themselves, manage their time and maintain momentum within the chaos and ambiguous existence of life in exile.

In particular, female camp residents explained how they enjoyed physical attendance at a university as a reprieve from the psychological imprisonment of camp life. Camp-based youth also explained how unreliable electricity sources, weak internet and lack of computers in the camps would make online learning very difficult within their environment.

Although most students had not experienced online learning directly, those who had complained about negative experiences of poor course administration and technical problems.

Interest in international scholarships was generally high among male refugees, who believed the quality of education and work opportunities to be better abroad. However, some were concerned about not being able to return to their country of asylum or having to start again in yet another new environment.

Among females, there were concerns about leaving family members behind and-or venturing into contexts of cultural, religious and linguistic unfamiliarity. Females who wanted to study abroad noted that they would not be able to travel alone without their parents’ or husband’s approval and-or being accompanied by an acceptable male ‘guardian’ (most international scholarships currently offered to refugees are non-accompanied).

Reasons why this approval might be denied included: concerns about women’s safety and propriety; fear of discrimination against Muslims in Europe; concerns that females might reject their culture and religion and community pressure to keep traditions.

We hope the research gives policy-makers and planners food for thought about some of the challenges they might face in trying to address the high demand for higher education from Syrian refugees.

Dr Kathleen Fincham is senior lecturer in education and social science at the School of Management and Social Sciences, St Mary's University, United Kingdom. She spoke about her research at the British Council’s recent Going Global 2017 conference.