Against hope, academics strive for global recognition of HE

Since the conflict began in Syria, hundreds of academics have been subjected to persecution and have lost their jobs and status in the scientific community.

For more than 10 years students at universities in Northwestern Syria have been suffering from the scourge of war – and most recently the region has been hit by devastating earthquakes, killing thousands of people including tens of students and higher education employees.

This catastrophe has shown the close links between universities and society and their important role in emergency response to disasters.

The Sham Center for Research and Studies contributed to eliminating rumours about the disaster. The university’s students, along with the ‘White Helmets’ and local NGOs, engaged in rescue work. Civil engineering students actively participated with the Engineers’ Union in assessing building damage.

Academics in Northwest Syria have lost any hope of realising their capabilities and achieving equality with their international colleagues, which is guaranteed by international law, and UN Sustainable Development Goal 4 – which focuses on education and aims to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all”.

However, academics from the region, which lies outside the control of the al-Assad regime, have not been inactive despite the obstacles faced by researchers in situations of instability and persecution.

At the recent annual Society for Research into Higher Education conference, academics from Sham University spoke about these obstacles, about the displaced academic communities in Northwestern Syria and the ways in which the global higher education sector can support and advocate for those seeking to maintain access to higher education in conflict-affected contexts.

Bringing Syrian academics together

After 2011, many Syrian academics migrated to neighbouring countries and countries in Europe in order to protect themselves and their families. Some of them held meetings in the diaspora to bring academics together as a first step towards restoring academic practices and higher education in their country.

They then joined with their internally displaced academic colleagues in Syria in establishing universities in Northwestern Syria in order to help students complete their studies to meet the needs of the labour market and to reduce youth migration and the depletion of human capital.

I am one of these academics. Our aim is to achieve international recognition of these new higher education institutions in Northwestern Syria. We have benefitted from the support of Cara (the Council for At-Risk Academics) when it comes to getting access to resources and support outside our own institutions and strengthening our communications with international colleagues.

Starting in 2019, Cara invited us to participate in a number of roundtables and workshops in Turkey, during which we discussed ways to advocate for higher education in Northwestern Syria. This resulted in the publication of five research papers in relation to different aspects of higher education: academic development; student record systems (in relation to students); gender; student skills gaps at the time of registration; and quality management and assurance models.

Based on these findings from academics at Sham University and Free Aleppo University, we were able to identify the most important needs when it comes to the development of higher education in Northwestern Syria, with the enhancement of the region’s academic reputation being a priority.

The findings of the study of a risk-management quality assurance model prompted us to consider building a risk-based quality management model that would be appropriate in the fragile context in which our universities operate. We identified risks and categorised them in order to develop mitigation strategies and we developed a more democratic management style which took into account the scarcity of academics and a lack of resources.

Information exchange and support

Cara helped us, as Sham University academics, to make useful visits to the UK during which we learned about the academic practices of some of the most prestigious UK institutions.

At the University of Leeds, Associate Professor Dr Aysha Divan, faculty director of student education, shared with us a helpful practice: how to integrate the student voice into governance structures and showed us how student feedback is gathered.

We met with members of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures (FAHC) student advisory board to discuss student perspectives and activities and had informal discussions with members of the University of Leeds Sanctuary Working Group on how the University of Leeds/the University Sanctuary Working Group might be able to support the Cara Syria Programme, particularly their ambitions for the quality delivery of higher education in a key pilot university in non-regime-governed Northwestern Syria.

We had the opportunity to gain an insight into the work of faculty-taught student education committees (FTSECs) (in biological sciences, and learning and teaching) and into their governance structure.

In London, we held a meeting with the international team of the Royal Society and visited its archives. We also met at the University of London with Professor Wendy Thomson, vice-chancellor, and a group of academic experts at the university. We discussed the options available for obtaining international recognition.

At the University of Kent, we observed the postgraduate exam board, spoke with external examiners and faculty members about assessment, moderation and appeals processes, observed staff development sessions and held a meeting with educational developers at the Unit for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning.

At the University of Sussex, we participated in a roundtable to discuss integrating quality management procedures into an appropriate organisational structure, focusing on forecasting risks and turning some of them into development opportunities. We tried to understand the academic development needs of faculty members at Sham University to build educational capacity and thus enhance the quality of teaching rather than uncritically applying generic models that are not suitable for the context of Northwestern Syria, which suffers from a scarcity of resources.

We are grateful in all this work for the support of a number of organisations, especially the Organization for Human Rights and Freedoms (IHH), Cara and Education Without Borders/the MIDAD Foundation.

And we look forward to greater contributions from international institutions such as UNESCO, the World Bank and others.

I would also like to thank University World News for helping to communicate the voice of Syrian academics to the global academic community and to convey what we are doing to ensure students in our region have access to the inclusive and equitable quality education they deserve.

Professor Miassar Alhasan is rector of Sham University and professor of guidance and control engineering.