Many universities in the West are seeking to help Syrian refugees by awarding scholarships to eligible students for them to study in Europe or North America. But the University of Bath is rolling out an alternative model by offering educational opportunities in countries closer to Syria that are hosting refugees.
The effort is part of a larger strategy at the university, which is trying to expand its footprint in the Middle East, not by building a branch campus, but through a series of partnerships with Jordanian institutions. The partnership strategy is called the “Muruna Project.”
The project will offer a select number of scholarships and spaces for qualified refugees to study at the master’s degree and doctoral levels in Jordan. Staff from the University of Bath will also train Jordanian engineering and mathematics professors, and the number of research collaborations and student and faculty exchanges will go up.
The bulk of the Muruna Project is aimed at supporting Jordan’s higher education, with refugee education and a regional impact as important fringe benefits.
“In supporting Jordan, we argue that we’ll be helping elsewhere,” says Colin Grant, pro-vice-chancellor of internationalization at the University of Bath. “It’s one of the key front-line states in the region.”
There are more than 600,000 Syrian refugees living in Jordan, according to data from the United Nations—a significant number for a country with a population of only about 6.5 million. It’s a similar situation in other nearby states; there are now more than 4.7 million Syrian refugees in neighboring countries.
A number of international charities and nonprofits are trying to make sure at least some of the university-age refugees get the education they would have enjoyed if peace had prevailed back home. Many offer an education at Western universities, but this has proven to be costly and difficult to scale up.
“I completely understand the motivation for offering foreign scholarships,” says Grant, “but we keep coming back to the question of creating impact—is it by removing talent and educating [students] abroad or is it about being innovative and trying to keep them closer to home?”
Perhaps the most direct way the Muruna Project will affect Syrian refugees is through a partnership with the Amman Baccalaureate School, where a new study center will offer Bath’s master’s degree in education. “The first cohort will be 20 students,” says Grant, “and we’re going to set aside a number of scholarships for refugees.”
The university will also partner with the Princess Sumaya University in Amman, where it will train faculty in the engineering and mathematics departments and encourage faculty exchanges.
Grant says Bath will also partner with the Royal Scientific Society of Jordan on research projects, mainly in the areas of water issues, public health and the environment.
Some observers are cautious in their assessments of the Muruna Project’s impact. “I think it’s very optimistic,” says Aziza Osman, a board member of Jusoor, an NGO made up of Syrian expatriates that supports the education of young Syrians.
“On the surface it looks really good, but it’s not specific enough,” she says.
Osman’s main concern is that most refugee students won’t have the right transcripts and documentation to prove they’re qualified for university places, which would mean only a small portion of refugees will benefit. “I doubt they’re going to find large numbers of Syrian refugees that meet the requirements,” she says, “It’s easy to ignore the majority and I think that could be an issue with this program.”
Mustapha Jazar, president of the Lebanese Association for Scientific Research, which provides funding for Syrian students in Lebanon, agrees with Grant that the Muruna Project is designed primarily to support Jordan. “The program is about the resilience of the host community,” he says. “The direct impact on refugees is low.”
Jazar offers a suggestion; since the University of Bath’s partners in Jordan are likely to benefit from this project, why not press them to offer more scholarships to refugees?
Grant says that he’ll be looking closely at the results of the Muruna Project in the coming years. For him, success will be measured by the number of research collaborations between Bath and Jordanian institutions, how many doctoral candidates they can train and the number of refugees they manage to educate.
“We want to make a long-lasting intellectual and scientific impact, along with a cultural and social impact,” he says.