News & Reports

Ambitious Syrian Students Often Enter a Maze

Editor’s note: This article is part of a two-article editorial package. The other article, The Frustrating Lives of Syria’s Future Leaders, describes the results of an online survey of Syrian students seeking advanced degrees.

Syrian students face many barriers when they seek advanced degrees. Many of the obstacles are not academic but logistical, sometimes with Kafkaesque twists.

“There are many highly qualified students here in Syria, but the conditions are really very frustrating and not supportive at all,” said a student in Damascus studying toward a master’s degree in pharmacy, who asked that her name not be used.

Only public universities in Syria are allowed to offer master’s degrees and doctorates. Damascus University, by far the largest Syrian public university, has 13,800 students in advanced-degree programs, according to the most recently published statistics (2014-15) on the Ministry of Higher Education website. (That same academic year the university said it had 178,000 undergraduates.)

Telephone interviews with some of those students and face-to-face interviews with Syrian students in advanced-degree programs outside of the country reveal how Syrian students with high academic aspirations have an uphill climb to get access to quality education. Inside Syria, the students say they have diminished resources, fewer professors, and some not-so-motivated colleagues filling up the classrooms. (In the case of male students, some seek advanced degrees to postpone military service.)

Many students working toward an advanced degree have a decidedly mixed experience. “My current master’s degree program is good, I enjoy it and I think it could help me in my work later,” said Abdulaziz Hammal, who is working toward a master’s degree in technology management at Syrian Virtual University. He acknowledged he does have some communication problems in his courses. “I am based in Aleppo and the university office is in Damascus and although it is virtual, I have to do all correspondence and communication with the university in person. Using email is not working in most cases.”

The research required for advanced degrees usually costs substantial sums of money, which many students don’t have. Syrian students who want to study outside the country have few places to turn to for information, since most foreign embassies and cultural centers in Damascus are closed.

A Student’s Odyssey

Students who want to study outside of the country have many hurdles to leap, aside from the lack of information. Take the example of a student interested in public health who was awarded a Chevening Scholarship for study in the United Kingdom. After he was notified that he was going to be interviewed for the scholarship, he had to take the IELTS test of English language proficiency.

The British Council, which offers the IELTS, closed its offices in Damascus after Syria’s civil war broke out in 2011. The IELTS can only be taken in-person. The nearest place for a Syrian to take the test is usually Beirut.

The test itself costs $205—the lion’s share of an average monthly household income in Syria. A round-trip taxi between Damascus and Beirut is $400. To enter Lebanon, Syrians need to show $2,000 in cash at the border and proof of hotel accommodation. (They can “rent” the cash and get hotels to provide proof of a reservation, but that also costs money.) The total cost of taking the IELTS can easily add up to $1,000—the average income of a Syrian household for three or four months.

Racha Nasreddine, the British Council’s country director for Syria, who is based in Beirut, said the British Council tries to assist Syrian students who need to get to Beirut by giving them letters for the Lebanese security ministry. “We are actively exploring solutions for delivery inside the country once the situation allows,” she said.

After passing the IELTS, the would-be public health student was asked by U.K. universities to get a professor’s recommendation sent from a Damascus University email address, since the student received his undergraduate degree there. But last year, most Damascus University professors did not have institutional email addresses and used personal email addresses only. (The university is now moving to create more official email addresses.) Three out of four U.K. universities the student applied to (Imperial College London, the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and University College London) refused to accept any alternatives to a reference from a university e-mail address. One—King’s College London—accepted a paper reference.

Once accepted at King’s College, the student needed to reserve housing in London. The only way to reserve a place in the university residences was to make an online deposit. But international sanctions have shut down online payments for Syrians. Again, however, no exceptions were allowed for the student’s lack of ability to pay online. He ultimately got housing through a church.

A Hunger for Practical Experience

Both for students inside Syria and those trying to leave, good English is a requirement for most advanced-degree programs. With the departure of the British Council and most other institutions that taught English, the opportunities to learn English in Syria have diminished. Financial support for tutoring or fee-based English courses does not exist.

Students are also hungry for internships, laboratory work, and any form of learning that is practical, not just theoretical. “Before the conflict, we got more practical experience,” said a health-sciences student from Homs, a city heavily damaged in the war, who got her undergraduate diploma in 2014. She had a two-year interruption in her education because of the war. “When I came back, it was a disaster.”

Students say that the quality of teaching has gone down, largely due to the number of professors who have left the country. Estimates vary on the proportion of professors who have left, from half of the Syrian professoriate at the high end to 20 percent on the low end. Many Western-trained professors with good foreign-language skills and connections to outside institutions did leave. Some Syrian professors retired and then moved to better-paying private universities, so they could collect both pensions and salaries.

Academics with Ph.D.’s in practical fields such as pharmacy often chose to move to the private sector for higher salaries. But balancing all of the departures out, many professors who have received their doctorates from institutions with strong international reputations and who express great passion for their students have remained in Syria and continued to teach.

In the comments section of the online survey Al-Fanar Media conducted of Syrian students pursuing advanced degrees, a student said that professors’ correction of tests was subjective and a way to reward their favorite students. “I was very sad to have a student say that,” said Talal al-Shihabi, an engineering professor at Damascus University who obtained his degree from Northeastern University, in the United States. “All the professors I know take correction and assessment very seriously and try to make sure that the students in laboratory sections or courses get the grades they deserve.”

It’s unlikely the situation of Syrian students seeking master’s degrees and Ph.D.’s will improve anytime soon. International contact, at least online, may increase. Travel restrictions for Syrian students and professors who want to attend international academic meetings show signs of easing. International organizations are gingerly exploring options to help Syrian students, such as English teaching or making online resources more available. Syrian students’ greatest resource for the moment, however, seems to be their own persistence and resilience.


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