Digital programme gives Syrian refugees access to HE

Refugees from the Syrian crisis and disadvantaged young people in Jordan and Lebanon are gaining access to short online courses and up to 24 months of blended learning study programmes through a partnership involving two universities in the region and King’s College London in the United Kingdom.

The Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access (PADILEIA) programme is funded as part of an UK aid funded initiative, including FutureLearn, with the aim of reaching 6,000 refugee learners and a couple of thousand more Jordanian and Lebanese students during the course of the five-year programme.

Speaking at a session on “Higher Education and the Syrian Crisis: Why digital learning shows promise” at the World Access to Higher Education Day conference at Aston University, the project’s senior strategy manager, Daniel Jones, said the project had already supported 1,500 students in the region.

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“The majority have been on short online courses and include students inside Syria where we don’t actually operate, but borders don’t matter so much when your support is online,” said Jones, who is part of the Sanctuary Programme at King’s – a collective response to the refugee crisis in general, not just Syria, by the London-based university.

In its first 18 months, it has also helped 26 foundation course students with scholarships and provided micro-credentials in relevant fields, augmented by student support services and affordable pathways into locally delivered formal academic qualification.

The partners in PADILEIA are Al al-Bayt University in Jordan, American University of Beirut, FutureLearn, King’s College London and Kiron Open Higher Education, based in Berlin.

Funding has come from the UK’s Department for International Development’s £45 million SPHEIR programme, which is managed by a consortium led by the British Council in association with PwC and Universities UK International.

Jones said: “Globally there are about 65 million people displaced. That’s about 1% of the global population and only 1% of refugees gain access to higher education compared with about 36% worldwide.

“More than any other form of education, higher education advances the refugee’s ability to make strategic choices about their lives and provides opportunities for them to contribute not only to solutions to the conflict or crisis they might find themselves in – but also to the relief and recovery of the country they have been displaced from after the conflict has subsided.”

Jones told University World News: “We have been in operation for 18 months and it has been incredibly challenging. Before the Syrian crisis about a fifth of students had access to higher education inside Syria. That number is between 1% and 5% of the Syrian youth who are displaced. The conflict has had quite a catastrophic impact on the higher education system.”

He said normally a lot of aid funding gets channelled into primary and secondary education.

“It is only when something drags out that any focus is given to higher education. So any higher education access initiative like PADILEIA sit at the end of a cumulative set of disadvantages and that makes it really difficult to design the programme.”

The PADILEIA approach is based around digital learning for a variety of reasons, he explained.

“It has a reach and scalability that isn’t available to offline programmes and allows us to explore new methods of pedagogy and tailored support. We are designing a new teaching and learning portfolio for the target student. The key ingredient in situations like this is cross-institutional collaboration.

“At one end, we offer short courses, mainly online but with structured support offline. At the other end of the spectrum we have foundation courses, a format that lots of people are familiar with in a widening participation context. This approach allows us to have sustained engagement with specific cohorts of students.”

There is a great appetite for digital learning among Jordanian and Lebanese higher education institutions, not just for increasing access, explained Jones. “But the legislation environment, and the higher education legislation in particular, isn’t necessarily fully conducive at this moment for some forms of digital learning.”

He told University World News: “Our students are time-poor, contrary to most expectations about students in a refugee context. No one is sitting around doing nothing. Everyone is stitching livelihoods in the best way they can. So flexibility is really key to that access.”

Particularly in the Syrian context all the primary and secondary education is in Arabic. The higher education system in Lebanon is in English and a bit in French. So, language is a huge barrier for Syrian students accessing higher education, Jones said.

“It is also a barrier to disadvantaged Jordanian and Lebanese youth. So we went about this by launching open access digital content with FutureLearn, based around English for the situations that the students find themselves in.

“Our content is tailored and we offer tailored support through WhatsApp because everyone uses WhatsApp.”

Most of the learning offered is suitable if students only have access to mobile phones, but the programme is working with NGOs to try to provide study space for the refugees.

* The conference also heard that the European Union’s Erasmus+ programme is developing a tool kit for the five top sending countries of refugees from conflict zones – Syria, Iraq, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Libya. Julie Anderson from the European Commission said: “This tool box will help recognition authorities throughout Europe learn about the qualifications and recognise them and cut down delays preventing people from getting into higher education.”