ISTANBUL—Turkish universities in regions bordering Syria have begun hiring Syrian academics to teach the Syrian refugee students who have enrolled in Turkish universities since 2015.
Turkey has taken more Syrian refugees than any other country, 2.9 million, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. As a result, the country has more Syrian young people seeking higher education than any of its neighbors. The number of students in Turkish universities has reached 15,000, according to Yekta Saraç, head of the Council of Higher Education in Turkey, known by its Turkish acronym, YOK.
In 2014, YOK directed universities in the provinces bordering Syria to hire Syrian teaching staff to meet the needs of Syrian students—most of whom don’t speak Turkish—but institutions have only gradually put the policy into place.
In February, the arts and sciences faculty at Harran University gave two-year renewable contracts to seven Syrian lecturers. The lecturers had been provided housing, but were paid only hourly teaching fees. Harran University is in Şanlıurfa, a city about 50 kilometers from the Syrian border.
The lecturers’ contracts include social and health insurance as well as visas and official approval by the Turkish government’s Higher Education Council.
Non-governmental organizations supporting refugee students hope this will be the beginning of a more widespread change. Spark, a Dutch NGO that supports Syrian refugee education in Turkey, is negotiating with the Turkish Council of Higher Education to extend similar benefits to Syrian academics teaching at other Turkish universities. “We want to get a better deal for all Syrian academics teaching in Turkey,” said Subhe Mustafa, country director for Syria at Spark (see related stories To Be Syrian and a Professor: Recipe for Tragedy and Syrian Professor’s Plea: Make Us Part of the Solution).
Hiring teachers who speak Arabic makes it possible for Syrian refugee students to proceed with courses of study that they may have started in Syria but were forced to interrupt by the war, without having to immediately learn Turkish. While some course materials have been translated into Arabic at some universities, having an Arabic-speaking instructor has obvious benefits.
“We found it difficult to reconcile our desire to accept the [Syrian] students with their inability to study in Turkish,” said Ramazan Taşaltın, president of Harran University. “This program is the solution, and Syrian professors are the key.” Some Syrian academics have also found employment at Jordanian universities. In Lebanon, it is exceedingly difficult for Syrians to work legally at all.
At Mardin Artuklu University, thirteen Syrian professors were given annual contracts at the beginning of this academic year, as well as one Arabic-speaking professor from Tunisia and another from Palestine. They will teach history, sociology, business administration and political science.
Gaziantep, a Turkish city 100 kilometers north of Aleppo, has a population of two million, of whom about a quarter—500,000—are estimated to be Syrian refugees. Gaziantep is a haven for entrepreneurial young Syrians, and Gaziantep University has played a key role in implementing the government’s policy on absorbing young Syrians into the country’s institutions of higher education.
Gaziantep University got an early start in using an Arabic curriculum. It has about 500 Syrian students, studying economics, engineering, education and biology. Its 27 Syrian academic professionals are still paid on an hourly basis, without social or health insurance.
Syrian lecturers there are given between two and 10 hours of teaching responsibilities per week and are paid 70 Turkish lira (about $19.00) per hour. Payment can be months late; one Syrian lecturer is said to have opened a grocery store to pay his bills.
Turkish policy on Syrian refugees has shifted from educating Syrian refugee youth in temporary training centers to absorbing them into the Turkish education system.
Statistics from the Council of Higher Education indicate that 9,689 Syrian refugees in the country were enrolled in higher education in 2016.
Edward Fox contributed additional reporting to this story.