The Crisis of Higher Education for Syrian Refugees

Between Relief Work and Strategic Planning

By Mohammad AlAhmad

Text written on tapestry: "You can destroy My books My shop My street You cannot destroy My thoughts My ideas My story"

“Absence Has Presence” – Rubbing by Elizabeth Ashcroft from the Al Mutanabbi Street Starts Here. The project was founded by Beau Beausoleil in response to the 2007 car bombing of Baghdad’s historic Al-Mutanabbi Street, the heart of the city’s intellectual community and home to numerous booksellers.

Meeting the educational needs of refugees and displaced people, particularly the need for higher education, is considered one of the greatest humanitarian challenges facing the international community in its response to the Syrian crisis. UNHCR estimates that globally, only 1% of refugee youth are able to access higher education.

When the Syrian revolution broke out in March 2011, university students joined the peaceful protests calling for the fall of the regime. Students and academics were exposed to a campaign of brutal repression, which took hundreds of thousands of students as victims, either martyred or arrested. Professors were not spared either, as many of them were detained and others were forced to flee. When the international community abandoned the peaceful protesters, the uprising evolved into an armed conflict, towns and cities were systematically destroyed, and institutions of higher education collapsed. The most significant consequence of the conflict has been that during the past six years, Syria has witnessed the largest wave of displacement seen in modern times. Nearly 5 million refugees have registered abroad and roughly 7 million Syrians have been internally displaced. There is no accurate data on the number of university-qualified students among these figures, but certain reliable organizations provide estimates. For example, the Institute of International Education says that more than 100,000 Syrian refugees are university-qualified students, while a cross-organizational study published by Al Fanar Media* estimates that roughly 120,000 -140,000 of Syria’s internally displaced people (IDPs) are university-qualified students.

The necessary regional and international response

Certainly, there are international organizations, academics, groups, and individuals in civil society working to provide refugees with education. These people are aware of potential long-term impacts of the crisis and call for the consideration of higher education as a priority, alongside food, shelter, and primary education. Although the considerable support that has been given to Syrian students and academics is both praiseworthy and highly appreciated, all of these organizations and bodies acknowledge that it is not enough, given the scale
of the crisis.

The number of all the grants and scholarships given to Syrian students since the start of the crisis and that have been promised for the coming years, does not exceed several thousand, according to the Al Fanar report. As such, there is a huge gap between opportunities provided and the demand, leaving more than 100,000 Syrian refugees and more than 120,000 IDPs without higher education. IDPs in particular cannot access these grants, nor are they likely to be able to in the future since they are unable to leave Syria and often do not have the required documents in their possession.

Experts and practitioners cite several reasons for this opportunity gap. Efforts to provide educational opportunities for Syrian refugees entail, according to Karsten Valber from the HOPES program, “a strange mix of relief work that has to be done quickly and higher education that has to be planned on a long term basis.” Some attribute the gap to barriers refugees face to enrolling in universities in the region, such as conditions for residency and the difficulties of obtaining academic documents such as transcripts. This is in addition to well-known obstacles like English-language barriers, the difficulty of obtaining travel visas to Western countries, and the distrust of online education certificates among governments in the Arab world. Others attribute the gap to the lack of multi-level cooperation between government-sponsored universities, donors, scholarship programs, international organizations, and educational institutions.

While all of these reasons are true and compelling, I believe that the main reason for the continuation of the crisis is the lack of strategic planning to deal with it.

Towards strategic planning and sustainable solutions:

Given this situation, it has become of paramount importance to hold an international conference with the mission to create a clear strategy for dealing with the crisis, including a concrete timeframe that reflects the pressing need to act with speed. The conference should have appropriate representation from ministries of higher education, university leaders, and political representatives from various states, and the agenda should highlight the necessity of sourcing sufficient funding to solve the crisis of elementary, secondary, and university education for Syrian refugees and displaced people.

Because of the widening gap between need and opportunity, the escalating numbers of refugees and displaced Syrians, and the unlikelihood of resolving the Syrian crisis in the near future—in addition to recent calls for universities in the region to provide higher education opportunities for Syrian refugees—I argue that the best sustainable solution is to set up a Syrian university in southern Turkey, where a large percentage of Syrian refugees reside. Ideally, such a university would have the ability to absorb more than 100,000 refugee and IDP students and would provide employment for displaced Syrian academics. Students whose studies were disrupted should be allowed to continue their education from the point at which they left off. In order to make this possible, a university of this type should operate in Arabic to avoid creating a linguistic barrier, and the material, methods, structure, and ways of teaching should be the same as that to which Syrian students are accustomed.

Making this vision a reality would not be easy, but the Turkish government has proven to be supportive of other educational projects for Syrian refugees. Given the vast numbers of Syrian refugees needing educational opportunities, it will take a project of this magnitude to even begin to address the crisis and enable a significant number of students to resume their studies after years of disruption.

Dr. Mohammad AlAhmad is an Assistant Teaching Professor at CCAS. This article was previously published in the Summer 2017 CCAS NewsmagazineA previous version of this article was published by Brookings.