LONDON—Syrian youth in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey say that the scholarships available to them are limited in number and in the fields of study they support. As a result, many students say they are studying in fields not related to their academic background or in which they have little aptitude or interest, according to a report released last week by the British Council at its annual Going Global conference.
The leaders of scholarship programs praised the study’s emphasis on students. “The study’s findings confirm what we know and experience in our programs,” said Carsten Walbiner, director of the HOPES Coalition, which offers 300 scholarships. “It’s important because it focuses on students, and we need to rethink what we are offering to make sure of its effectiveness.”
Since 2015, many international and higher-education institutions have developed programs geared toward offering scholarships to refugees. The number of higher-education scholarships available for Syrian students has increased sharply over the past year. But this expansion does not meet the demand, and many students have already dropped out of scholarship programs for a variety of reasons, including a feeling of hopelessness that they will never find employment. (See related article “Little Hope of Jobs for Syrians in Lebanon and Jordan.”)
The British Council’s new report did find that Syrian young people expressed a very high interest in higher education. Students saw higher education as a path to economic survival, a way to achieve a life they would value and to contribute to rebuilding their country in the future. But the report noted that Syrian youth are disappointed that scholarships often can only be applied to certain universities, which means that they must commute long distances to campus (sometimes one-and-a-half to two hours each way), taking up time when they could be studying and exposing them to security risks. Women in particular do not like to commute after dark. Refugees also criticize the financial terms of their scholarships, which generally cover the direct costs of education such as tuition and fees but too often do not include support for other costs like books, accommodations, or travel expenses. Students also said they often experience late and irregular payments of scholarship funds.
“It was not the lack of higher-education opportunities but more the availability of suitable scholarships that might enable youth to take up these opportunities,” said Kathleen Fincham, a senior lecturer in education and social science at St. Mary’s University in London who conducted the study.
The study was qualitative and based on interviews with 178 Syrian youth in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. The data for the study were collected through participant observation, semi-structured interviews and focus groups to reveal young Syrian refugees’ perceptions of higher-education opportunities. “I used these research methods to enable local, individual and marginalized viewpoints to emerge,” said Fincham.
The study made certain that female voices were included by interviewing 80 women. It also showed differences in perspectives on education between genders. For example, male youth in all three countries saw higher education as a means of securing better employment. Female youth more often reported that they had no specific career goals in mind, but wanted to pursue higher education for reasons including love of knowledge or because they believed education would make them better at raising their children.
“Women’s presence is important in Syrian society,” said Fincham. “But men and women often had different reasons for wanting to continue their studies, reflecting different roles that higher education plays in their lives as well as the different impact it has on their access to the labor market.”
For now, less than five percent of Syrian refugees have access to higher education, the report said.
“Education is not for refugees’ employment only, it is a kind of protection, which should be offered to refugees without restrictions,” said Vick Ikobwa, education officer at UNHCR in Jordan, during a discussion of the report at Going Global.
His point of view is compatible with what the author of the report recommends.
“Young Syrian refugees need extra guidance to gain access to higher education and then further support while studying,” said Fincham. “In countries of asylum, higher education plays a key role in refugees’ social and economic integration.”