Easing the Syrian Conflict’s Toll on Higher Education

The ongoing crisis and violence in Syria over the past 20 months has had a very harmful effect on education. After outlining the damage, I have some recommendations on what both Syrian and international organizations might be able to do to help Syrian higher education.

The direct damage caused to the buildings and equipment that belong to the Ministry of Higher Education has been more than 326 million Syrian pounds, or about $2.4 million, including the first quarter of 2013. There is also widespread destruction in inaccessible areas that has been estimated to exceed 5 billion Syrian pounds, or $38 million. Public spending on education is expected to shrink by more than half from 2010 to 2013.

In addition, the toll of the conflict is high among professors and lecturers with 53 deaths, 52 injuries and 4 documented kidnappings, as well as large numbers of threats and blackmail. There are no official statistics, but estimates of the proportion of Syrian academics who have left the country after the conflict began range from 9 to 30 percent.

Furthermore, financial difficulties, high tuition fees, security issues, the location of universities, and the deterioration of the economic situation have led many students to drop out from their universities and work to support their families. Some universities stopped operating for a short period of time and canceled summer semesters due to the difficulty students and professors have in reaching those campuses that are close to conflict-affected areas.

The economic sanctions have also imposed problems on Syrian students who are overseas and struggling to collect their compensation. The Ministry of Higher Education has given such students more than $100 million for the academic year 2013/2014. But many countries have banned transactions with Syrian public banks, effectively blocking transfers to overseas Syrian students.

In order to ease the negative effect of the crisis, the Ministry of Higher Education has tried to increase the ability of public universities to absorb students, opening colleges in safe areas and developed a mechanism to help students continue their studies and exams. In addition, the ministry has delivered the payments of overseas students directly to them when they were visiting Syria or to parents or legal representatives who could transfer the payments abroad. Moreover, the ministry has asked the students to open personal accounts at private banks in Syria in foreign currency to solve this issue. There is still cultural exchange between Syria and more than 40 countries.

The Ministry of Higher Education has not responded yet to the request of private universities to increase tuition for students who are already enrolled, money they need to keep operating in the current conditions. According to the law as it stands now, the university must return the student’s money and pay a 500,000 Syrian pound fine ($3,800) any time a university increases fees for an enrolled student without government authorization. The ministry has helped private universities by providing temporary facilities for some of them in safe areas.

Despite these actions, losses that hit the higher-education system require further needed intervention, such as: rebuilding damaged buildings and equipping them with laboratories and other needed facilities, securing roads vital to universities, providing interest-free loans for students to help them get around financial difficulties, giving students free access to public transportation, and allowing installment plans for those students who have to pay fees to public universities.

Above all this, protecting professors and lecturers is a key step to ensure that education continues. More incentives and compensation would help to reduce brain drain.

Of course, all these actions and efforts cannot succeed unless all parties involved in the current conflict keep educational institutions neutral.

International institutions could help by training counselors who could provide psychological support to students, distributing free vouchers to buy university supplies, and providing direct subsidies to affected students to complete their studies and reduce the number of drop outs. Furthermore, distribution of free kits containing the most important university tools such as stethoscopes, lab coats, and pocket diagnostic sets for medicine students and testing and measuring equipment for engineering students, which are a financial burden, would be very useful to encourage students to continue their studies.

International organizations and development agencies have a crucial role in providing further assistance to students. They could help to create a mechanism to transfer the payments of overseas students and supply the laboratories at Syrian universities with important equipment. International medical organizations could provide medical equipment to medical schools, and other specialized organizations could assist engineering schools.

Cooperation combining national efforts with the capabilities of international organizations is particularly important to support higher education in Syria at a critical time. Syria needs doctors and engineers and other professionals both now and in the future when rebuilding after the conflict ends.

*Rami Zaatari is a Team Leader at the National Competitiveness Observatory, in Damascus.

The National Competitiveness Observatory (NCO) is an independent, nonprofit institution responsible for monitoring both the challenges and opportunities for economic prosperity in Syria, and analyzing them to make practical recommendations.

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