Getting Syria's college students back into class

By Anna Patton 06 July 2016

Fatima fills out forms at the UNHCR office in Damascus after being awarded a scholarship to study medicine under a UNHCR higher education program funded by Belgium and Italy. Globally, less than 1 percent of university-aged refugees of all nationalities are in tertiary education, according to the UNHCR, compared to 32 percent among the general population. Photo by: B. Diab / UNHCR

Before 2011, over one-quarter of Syrians aged 18-24 were enrolled in tertiary education. Since war broke out — displacing well over 10 million citizens inside and outside the country — prospects for students look bleak. In Turkey alone, the U.N. High Commission for Refugees estimates there are 100,000 Syrians of studying age out of school due to language and financial barriers.

The world’s current refugee crisis is unprecedented not only in scale — with 65 million displaced, the highest number on record — but also in demographics: unlike in previous decades, many are from middle-class backgrounds. Fleeing one’s country vastly reduces chances of getting a degree: Globally, less than 1 percent of university-aged refugees of all nationalities are in tertiary education, according to the UNHCR, compared to 32 percent among the general population.

In February, the Syria donors conference directed attention toward resilience and rebuilding, including educating refugees as future engineers, doctors and other professionals. But this is no small task. Those fleeing war often leave behind the documents they need to apply.

Western universities offer scholarships, but these are costly and subject to visa approvals. Providing opportunities closer to Syria is also challenging. Universities can only take in so many new students.

In Turkey, now home to over 2.7 million Syrians, there are added language barriers for Syrian students. And everywhere, many young refugees must prioritize earning an income over studying.

“The problem is so multifaceted and tremendous that we need a multitude of different approaches,” said James King, assistant director at the Institute of International Education.

New starts

Turkey, the world’s largest host of refugees, is already investing most of its $3.2 billion aid budget in supporting newly arrived Syrians. The country has demonstrated “a forward-thinking policy on higher education,” according to King. Students without documents are allowed to audit university classes; numbers of those enrolled in Turkish universities increased from 2,000 in the 2013-14 academic year to 5,500 in 2014-15.

Several western organizations are trying to increase those figures further. SPARK, a Dutch NGO providing entrepreneurship and education opportunities in conflict-affected societies, gives full scholarships to 1,500 Syrian refugees in Syria and the wider region for vocational and university degrees. In Turkey, they are helping the University of Gaziantep — located 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) from the Syrian border — set up accredited Arabic-language programs. SPARK also provides scholarships to 100 students per year for the university’s eight newly translated degrees. The NGO also offers language preparation for Turkish or English-language programs.

The language issue is “complex,” said Julian Parry, the British Council's director of English and education in Ankara. Professional-level Arabic will be needed for those returning to Syria, but in the meantime, English is required by the most prestigious universities. The British Council hopes to provide English-language training to 4,000 Syrians across the region under one of the first projects funded by The EU Regional Trust Fund in Response to the Syrian crisis, also called the Madad Fund.

Kiron, which opened in Germany in 2015, is also looking to expand into Turkey and requires a minimum standard of English. Students take modules from world-class universities including Harvard, Stanford and MIT for up to two years online via an established massive online open course provider. Kiron then transfers credits to one of its partner universities, where students complete a further year or two toward an accredited degree. With 300,000 euros ($334,400) of funding from Google, the organization covers the approximate 3,000 euros ($3,313) cost per person.

The model accommodates mobile populations, since individuals can begin the course online in one country and attend a partner university in another if they move. Kiron currently partners with 18 universities in three countries, and is in negotiations with another 120 around the world. No universities have confirmed partnerships in Turkey, but Kiron’s co-founder and managing director, Markus Kressler, said several showed high interest after initial meetings.

Measuring motivation

While online learning opens up opportunities, some are cautious about its effectiveness.

Parry cited hiccups from a British Council pilot training course for Syrian volunteer teachers in Turkey. “We had IT problems, and the students didn't really go on to the more interactive parts of training … It’s just not as rich as a live lesson, even a live online lesson,” he said. Some students “just don’t take to [online learning].”

Dropout rates for online courses generally are high: completion rates among the broader population are less than 7 percent, according to one study. This would be “unacceptable” for refugees, said Parry.

Kiron’s founders are confident they can increase that figure with additional services, such as buddying and mentoring, psychological counseling, career advice and study hubs. Refugees have a “high-intrinsic motivation” to get a qualification, Kressler said.

For its part, SPARK invests heavily in assessing student commitment at the time of application, said Islam Elghazouly, deputy coordinator of the NGO’s Syrian Higher Education Program. The entire team is dedicated to vetting over 15,000 applications in “an intense three-month selection process, to ensure we select students with the right motivation.”

Still, financial constraints inevitably limit many people’s options to continue or pursue education.

“I’ve met a lot of Syrian students who dropped out from high school because of the war, and are now working mostly in restaurants with no intention to continue their education as they are supporting other family members,” said Elghazouly. To offset the pressure for those who do choose to study, SPARK offers those on its three- or four-year programs additional income support.

Great demand

Demand for education vastly outstrips supply, despite best efforts. The German Academic Refugee Initiative Fund (known by its German acronym DAFI) received 5,803 applications for 70 scholarship places in Turkey in 2015, according to the UNHCR. Beginning this autumn, they will offer 1,000 places over four years. Kiron co-founder Kressler reckons there are tens of thousands or even a hundred thousand potential students in Turkey.

When SPARK piloted university-level scholarships last year in Turkey, they received 4,000 applications for just 15 places; they now offer 320 places. They also distribute application forms through local partners to reach candidates without internet access. With funding from the Dutch government and Qatari foundation Al Fakhoora, SPARK expects to have 3,000 students enrolled by September 2016 for all courses in the Middle East and North Africa region. They will push to increase those numbers, especially among marginalized communities, said Elghazouly.

But if the overall demand is high, donor funding is unlikely to suffice. Currently sustained by crowdfunding, private donations, and grants from government and foundations, Kiron is aiming long term at a reverse funding model, through which companies hiring graduates commit to funding the next generation of students.

Host community demand is also high. Turkey’s government does not set quotas for including its citizens (unlike Jordan, where 30 percent of scholarships must go to Jordanian nationals). But organizations operating in the poorer parts of Turkey are aware that offering opportunities only to refugees could provoke hostility. The Madad-funded project, for instance, which is led by the German Academic Exchange Service, includes outreach about tertiary schooling opportunities to 42,000 youth, both Syrian refugees and vulnerable host communities alike.

Potential students in Turkey need assistance to “navigate a complex higher education system,” said King of IIE. On a visit to the country last year, he found that “students were frustrated by hearing about opportunities, but not knowing how to access them.”

For the organizations trying to help — operating themselves in unstable environment — there is at least some certainty that there is plenty of work to be done.

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About the author

Headshot anna patton
Anna Patton

Anna Patton is a freelance journalist and media facilitator specializing in global development and social enterprise. Currently based in London, she previously worked with development NGOs and EU/government institutions in Berlin, Brussels and Dar es Salaam as well as in the U.K., and has led media projects with grass-roots communities in Uganda and Kenya. Anna has an master’s degree in European studies — specializing in EU development policy — and is a fellow of the On Purpose social enterprise program.


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