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Syrian Higher Education ‘Highly Fractured and Diminished,’ Report Says

A newly issued report on Syrian higher education and an accompanying policy brief are encouraging universities and international organizations to engage with Syrian higher education, and suggesting guidelines for doing so.

The report, Syrian Higher Education post 2011: Immediate and Future Challenges, was both research and a capacity-building exercise for some Syrian academics. The researchers included staff members from the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education and exiled Syrian academics in Turkey, working with the support of the Council for At-Risk Academics, or Cara, and its funders.  The report drew on a literature review, 117 remote interviews of Syrian academics, two focus groups, and interviews by University of Cambridge staff of 19 Syrian academics living in Turkey.

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The report presents a bleak portrait of a “highly fractured and diminished” higher education sector in Syria, with unaccredited universities operating in areas outside regime control and, inside government-controlled areas, a reluctance of the government to lose its grip on curriculum and other aspects of higher education. (See related Al-Fanar Media articles “Universities in Syria’s Opposition-Held Areas Face an Uncertain Future”; “In Syria, the Complicated Web That Sanctions Weave”; and “The Frustrating Lives of Syria’s Future Leaders.”)

Colleen McLaughlin of the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Education called the report “One of the most complex and challenging things I’ve ever done.” The researchers could not visit Syria, she said, and faced a great deal of mistrust among those they interviewed or wanted to interview.

At the end of a workshop on the report, she summarized the recommendations for the audience assembled. “There was total silence in the room and I thought, ‘My God, we’ve got that terribly wrong,’” she said. She asked what the problem was. “If we had read out what you just said, we would probably not be alive,” was the response she got, she said.

The report reiterates previous research that has described a system operating with a radically reduced number of top professors, a stagnant curriculum, largely collapsed research capacity, and human rights violations on campuses. Connections between Syrian universities have faded, while academic links with Russia, Iran, and China have grown.

Among the recommendations of the report and the policy brief for international organizations:

  • Provide “financial, material and human resources to individual departments in safe areas, particularly in neglected public universities.”
  • Develop stronger connections between universities and employment opportunities. University students and professors have stressed the need for internships and other programs that would connect industry and universities.
  • Provide access for Syrian academics inside and outside Syria to journals, databases, research funding, mentoring support and access to international partnerships.
  • Withdraw government security personnel from campuses and replace them with civilian forces experienced in conflict resolution and peace building.

The report encouraged supporting individual Syrian academics, both inside and outside of Syria. “The most powerful thing we can do to colleagues such as this is to help them to work,” said McLaughlin. “They want to keep their professional identity and do good work.” While this is still not happening, in many instances, she said, she is clearer about what is needed.

Shaher Abdullateef, a Syrian agricultural scientist who spoke at the London launch event for the report, said the first question he gets when he meets a fellow Syrian academic is “Where are you working?”

An academic without a university or a research center is no more an academic, he said.


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