Syrian Higher Education Faces a Long Recovery
Following is an edited version of an article that first appeared on the website Syria in Depth, a project that mentors and trains young Syrian journalists. Related articles by Al-Fanar Media’s reporting team include “Studying Medicine in Time of War” and “A School of Fine Arts Feels the Effects of War.”)
Maram ran her hands across her white uniform to make sure she looked well-dressed enough at the start of a new day of work at a downtown Damascus restaurant. By this hour, she should have been wearing her white lab coat and getting ready to enter the laboratory at the Faculty of Pharmacy.
But Maram, who was displaced with her mother and two younger brothers to Damascus after her father died in al-Raqqa, in northern Syria, had to leave her studies to help support her small family.
“The insecurity and bombs falling at the university gates didn’t hold me back from pursuing my studies,” said Maram. “Material needs did.”
Maram, in her 20s, has joined the ranks of students who faced hardships in pursuing their studies because of the severe economic conditions that have persisted during seven years of Syria.
Study in some universities halted because of war, which led to denser populations of students in those that kept their doors open.
Some students dropped out altogether. Others took jobs to help finance their studies, and some left applied-science disciplines, which require more study hours and have specific attendance rates, to study “theoretical” disciplines in the social sciences and humanities instead. The absence rates rose to around 90 percent in some theoretical departments, students said.
The quality of education also decreased as professors fled to safer countries and curricula became weaker. And business leaders complain that universities aren’t equipping new graduates with the skills needed in the labor force.
Hardships for Students
The number of students residing in Damascus’s student accommodation center rose from 15,000 in 2011 to 22,000 in 2017, according to the center’s statistics, as the center became the favorable option for students facing economic hardships.
“If not for the student housing, we would be begging on the streets,” said one student.
The average cost of studying in Syria’s public universities now is between 25,000 and 50,000 Syrian pounds (about $100 to $200), including registration, transportation, and textbooks, besides accommodation.
To help cover their costs, many students skip classes to look for jobs.
Raif Labbad, a student of economics at Damascus University, said that his work in a grocery store after study hours was a reason why he is getting lower grades. “With the evening job, I don’t have enough time to study.”
Other students work selling vegetables and fruit on the streets, in construction jobs, or as janitors and guards of warehouses and factories.
Student work was not a widespread phenomenon before the war in Syria, especially for students in applied-science departments, said Mazin, a teaching assistant at Damascus University’s Faculty of Pharmacy who asked that his family name not be revealed.
More students get jobs each year, Mazin said, and their ability to focus on their studies deteriorates. “Many students are absent from morning classes because of their night jobs,” he said. “I try as much as possible to help them catch up, but material need is the highest priority.”
Abdulkarim Mawas, a philosophy student in his fourth year at Damascus University, said that barely 20 students managed to attend classes regularly. “Then at exams, we were struck to see that 200 students are taking the exam,” Mawas said.
Students prefer to join theoretical departments that do not require a specific attendance rate, which means lower transportation costs. Some leave to join two-year programs at polytechnics, compared to four-to-six-year programs at universities.
None of these options was suitable for Maram.
Her father’s death in al-Raqqa, combined with the need to help sustain her mother and two younger brothers, compelled her to leave higher education at the Faculty of Pharmacy for good. “I wasn’t able to keep up with study requirements, especially in this department that needs a lot of work,” she said.
“I wish there were some entity providing aid for students like me and many others,” Maram said.
A Faculty ‘Brain Drain’
Besides the economic hardships for students, universities face other problems as well, including lower government support. The budget for this sector fell from $733,000 in 2010 to no more than $175,000 in 2017.
As professors flee, universities have also lost around 20 percent of their teaching staffs overall, and the rate might go as high as 30 percent in some departments, according to statements by the minister of higher education, Atef al-Nadaf.
Professors are leaving Syria for “economic, social and psychological reasons tied to the current conditions,” he said. One of the biggest reasons is the decrease in pay for teaching staff at public universities, which is no more than $150 a month.
Mohie al-Din S., a professor of civil engineering who left the country two years ago for the United States, said higher education in Syria “is in for a dangerous fate if the brain drain continues at this rate.”
Because of the loss of professors, a member at the executive office of the National Union for Syrian Students told the newspaper al-Watan, universities were relying on less qualified faculty members to fill the gap—by hiring teaching assistants or master’s students instead of Ph.D. holders, for instance.
Abdulhamid al-Miqdad, a third-year student in economics at Damascus University, said, “We feel there is a great deal of negligence in the teaching process. Most students don’t attend.”
In addition, war conditions that caused universities to cease functioning in hotspots like al-Raqqa and Idlib led to a redistribution of thousands of students to other universities, including Damascus University, which put more pressure on teaching staffs and led to very crowded classes.
Maher Malindi, dean of the Faculty of Law at Damascus University, told al-Ayam newspaper in November that the law school had around 25,000 students and only 65 professors. This “represents a huge challenge,” he said. “International standards necessitate that no single professor should supervise more than 50 students, while in this faculty we have five times this rate.”
The quality of education in applied-science departments has also deteriorated. “Most of the time, the practical lessons rooms are unbearably crowded,” said Ola Wafi, a student of dentistry.
In departments of engineering and architecture, the cost of graduation projects is between $400 and $1,000 per project, an expense that has led many students to drop the idea of the graduation project, or to join with other students in a single project.
Sami al-Daqaq, a student in his last year of studying mechanical and electrical engineering at Damascus University, said prices of the materials students need for graduation projects had doubled many times. “When we asked the faculty administration for help, they said there is no law for granting material support to students to cover graduation projects, and that all the administration can do is provide us with access to in-house labs and workshops during our work on graduation projects.”
Problems for Private Universities
Private universities have been affected by the war as well. Around ten universities had to relocate to safer zones inside cities, according to people working in these universities and data from the Private Universities Division of the Ministry of Higher Education.
Standards at the ad-hoc campuses are lower than those at the original campuses, in terms of equipment, labs, and infrastructure, even though the new headquarters were approved by the ministry as fulfilling minimum standards.
Government data show that fewer students joined these universities during the first four years of the war, but their numbers started increasing again in 2016, especially in applied-science departments. Students and teachers think this is because of money coming to students from relatives who now live and work in other countries.
Private universities seek to attract students who wish to get an acceptable level of education in Syria, instead of studying abroad.
The availability of up-to-date textbooks is another area affected by the war and deteriorating economic conditions.
In an article last August, al-Ayam newspaper described the textbook industry in Syria as a “higher-education graveyard.” The newspaper said that the reasons for this are bureaucratic limitations and obstacles, like approvals needed for writing new curricula, and low fees for authors, which are not more than $200 per book.
A university professor from Damascus University who asked to remain anonymous said, “If a professor wants to buy a book from abroad to widen his knowledge, he will need an amount of money equal to his monthly salary.”
Joudi Mdalal, a student of psychology in her fourth year at Damascus University, said, “The curriculum is ancient, and it is not changing. Some parts of it are badly translated texts.”
Out of Sync With Labor Needs
The readiness of new graduates to enter the labor force is also a concern.
Lujeen Asad, head of human resources at al-Wasil Company, an affiliate of Syriatel Communications Group, said there had been a steady deterioration in the skills level of graduates applying for jobs over the past few years.
“We can hardly find three or four graduates at the required level, among 200 applicants,” she said.
Riyad Tayfour, a deputy minister of higher education, concurred that there is not enough linkage between higher education and the needs of the labor market.
In October, al-Ayam quoted Tayfour saying that the ministry lacks inputs about the labor market. “The ministry is totally out of the picture, out of sync,” he said, “and it cannot cater for labor-market needs.”
“Students graduate and find themselves unemployed because the skills they got from their education are not needed,” he added.
Hla al-Shash, a faculty member at the International Arab University, a private institution in Syria, asked, “What’s education good for if it is free but without any substantial value?”
“We should stop increasing the numbers of graduates and should instead dedicate our efforts to having qualitative educational outputs with direct linkages to the labor market,” she said.
She also called for more focus on practical and applied teaching methods, and to move away from the educational paradigm of memorizing textbooks.
“I don’t need English department graduates who memorize Shakespeare’s poems but who are unable to present themselves in Shakespeare’s language in a job interview,” she said.
Given the continuing war conditions and economic crisis, it appears higher education’s problems in Syria will not end any time soon.
“The governmental sector is the first sector to be hit by the war,” said a professor at Damascus University and it will be “the last sector to recover from it.”