University study offers way to integrate Syrian refugees

The Syrian civil war resulted in mass migration from Syria into the neighbouring countries. Since the start of the war, Turkey has followed an open-door policy and 3.7 million Syrian refugees have entered Turkey, making it the largest refugee-hosting country worldwide.

Initially placed in refugee camps, Syrians started to settle outside of camps, concentrated near the Syrian border and in the provinces around the camps. Then they migrated to different parts of Turkey in a quest for jobs and better prospects.

At the onset of the Syrian refugee influx, the expectation, and the official position, was that their stay would be temporary and that they would return to Syria when the conflict ended. As the conflict lengthened, Turkey’s position changed and the integration of Syrian refugees has become an important issue. Higher education is one of the key means of integrating refugees into Turkish society.

The three main issues regarding participation of Syrian refugees in higher education in Turkey are access, quality of education and mobility. Until now, research has focused on the first of these, access, rather than the quality of higher education refugees have accessed, which is important for their long-term integration.

Syrians in Turkish universities

Syrians have always been free to study at Turkish universities as international students. The number of foreign students admitted to each programme, that is, the foreign student quota, is determined by the universities themselves and approved by the Council of Higher Education.

Unlike the centralised and highly competitive university entrance examination for Turkish students, requirements for the admission of foreign students are left to the discretion of universities. Each university sets its own admission criteria and, considering refugees’ exceptional circumstances, the Council of Higher Education introduced a guest status or ‘special student’ status to facilitate transfers and enrolment.

As a result, Syrian students were allowed to register at seven public universities close to the border, a policy which was later extended across the country, with waivers for some document requirements. This form of enrolment was also later extended to all types of university.

Higher education is free of charge for domestic students at public institutions, with tuition fees in place for international students, from which Syrian refugees are exempted. The number of foreign students in the Turkish higher education system is relatively low (2.6%).

However, the proportion of Syrians among international students at Turkish universities increased from 8% in 2014 to 21% in 2021. In other words, currently, one in every five international students is Syrian.

More than 500,000 Syrian refugees were of university age (19-24) in 2021. This is the second largest age group, accounting for 13% of the total, with the 4-10 age group being the biggest. The higher education enrolment rate for this group rose to 3.8% in 2018, to 5% in 2019 and to 9.5% in 2021. This rate is higher than the global refugee enrolment rate, but considerably lower than the non-refugee rate.

There has been a radical change in Syrian students’ preferences for undergraduate-associate degrees compared to the early years of the crisis. In the 2014-16 period, 6%-7% were enrolled in two-year associate degree programmes, increasing to 26% in 2021.

This preference for shorter courses is different from that of other international students. In fact, currently, Syrians make up about half of international students enrolled in two-year associate degree programmes. One explanation is that Syrians increasingly see themselves as permanent residents in Turkey and aim to enter the labour market as quickly as possible.

Quality of education

The quality of higher education is as important as ease of access. We used the Middle East Technical University-University Ranking by Academic Performance (URAP) of Turkish universities to determine the quality of higher education for Syrian students.

Using this approach, universities are divided into groups of 25 in order of quality. First, we calculated the proportion of Syrian students in each group, and then the quality access coefficient showing the ratio of the highest-ranked group to the lowest-ranked group was worked out.

In 2014, 80% of the 1,785 Syrians students studied in ranked universities and the proportion of Syrians enrolled in the 25 highest-ranked universities was 35%, 1.9 times more than the proportion in the 25 lowest-ranked.

In 2017, 15,042 Syrian students studied at 150 Turkish universities and 95% of these were in ranked universities. Although the proportion of students in the second-ranked group of 25 universities exceeds the share in the first-ranked group, the proportion of Syrians enrolled in the first-ranked group was 25%.

Since the recent rise in enrolment, the rate of Syrian students in the third-ranked group has exceeded that in the highest-ranked group. In 2020, the number of Syrian students increased to 37,236, 99% of whom studied at ranked universities. Twenty percent of these were in the first-ranked group and 24% each in second- and third-ranked groups. As a result, the access-quality indicator increased to 2.7.

In 2021, there were more than 47,000 students in 185 universities and 98% of these were at ranked universities. The second-ranked group constituted the largest proportion with 26%, but 19% were in the first-ranked group. The access-quality coefficient remained at 2.7.

Higher education has increased the mobility of Syrians in Turkey. Unlike the first years of immigration, Syrian university students have now started to enrol in regions where the Syrian population is very low. As a result, in some regions and provinces, the number of Syrian higher education students exceeds the total number of Syrians.

Sixty eight percent of Syrian refugees are concentrated in six provinces close to the Syrian border and in Istanbul. However, these provinces account for only 38% of the students enrolled in higher education. Correspondingly, 62% of students are in the provinces and regions where 32% of the population live.

Surpassing refugee student targets

From the above we can see that Syrian refugees can access a relatively high quality education. Their efforts to access quality higher education also increase their mobility within Turkey. The enrolment rate of Syrians in Turkey is very close to the 15% target rate set by the UN Refugee Agency UNHCR for refugees by 2030.

In order to achieve the UNHCR goal, the number of refugee students must increase from the current 47,000 to 75,000 within four years. If enrolment grows at the average rate of the last four years, this target will be reached in only two years. This increase can easily be absorbed, given the capacity of Turkish higher education.

Professor Dr Oguz Esen is based at Izmir University of Economics, Turkey.