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Syrian Universities Struggle to Survive After a Decade of War

BEIRUT—Ten years into a civil war that has forced more than half of Syria’s population to flee their homes, the country’s higher education system is broken and Syrian universities are struggling to survive, according to Syrian academics and other education experts.

Speaking at a recent online workshop titled “Higher Education in Syria After a Decade of War,” organized by the European Union-funded EDU-Syria program and the German Academic Exchange Service, or DAAD, the panel members said Syrian universities faced a myriad of challenges. These include poor infrastructure, outdated curricula, unqualified teaching staff, absence of research resources and academic freedom, insecurity and lack of funds and international exchange. (See a related article, “Syrian Higher Education Faces a Long Recovery.”)

Sulaiman Mouselli, a professor of finance at the Arab International University in Daraa, in southern Syria, noted that despite the armed conflict, the number of students at Syrian universities in 2017 stood at half a million, along with 8,800 academic staff members, including administrators.

“That is a sign of resilience,” Mouselli said. “The challenges caused by the war are many in both public and private universities. They range from weak digitalization of infrastructure, low quality of education, outdated teaching methods, lack of digital skills, brain drain of academic staff due to low income, and instability and poor funding.”

“The deteriorating situation forced many students to try to catch up and learn by themselves through open sources and free online courses,” Mouselli added.

Schools Targeted by All Sides

Nahed Ghazzoul, assistant professor of linguistics at Paris Nanterre University, underlined the “disastrous” situation for Syrian universities and schools in Idlib and northern Syria. Control of that region is split between the Salvation Government led by the jihadist al-Nusra Front and the National Coalition for Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, both opposed to Damascus regime. (See a related article, “Universities in Syria’s Opposition-Held Areas Face an Uncertain Future.”)

“Schools and universities have been targeted systematically by all parties to the conflict,” Ghazzoul said. They were no longer safe places, and parents kept their children out of school. But this made children easy targets for recruitment by warring groups, or thrust them into the labor market, she said.

“The war generation does not have schools, teachers, or any equipment of the educational process. Definitely they cannot make it to university,”

Nahed Ghazzoul
Assistant professor of linguistics at Paris Nanterre University

According to United Nations figures, a whole generation of Syrian children between ages 6 and 10 are totally illiterate.

A main hurdle for education in northern Syria is that students who make it to high school and sit for baccalaureate exams are granted diplomas by the local authorities that are not recognized by universities.

“Lack of recognition is a big obstacle for higher education as it de-motivates students from continuing their education,” Ghazzoul said. They ask, “Why should we do it if nobody is going to recognize it?”

While school and university education in Syria was totally free before 2011, the seven public and private universities in Idlib and northern Syria now impose fees that most students cannot afford.

Thousands of Teachers Unpaid

Ghazzoul said some 5,000 teachers will stop teaching because they haven’t received their salaries for more than a year. “It means that more than 450,000 students will stay without education at all levels.”

A survey of 245 DAAD scholarship holders and alumni last year showed that 51 percent of respondents believed that teaching infrastructure in higher education institutions in Syria is very bad or insufficient, and more than 80 percent rated academic research as very bad or insufficient.

One respondent was quoted as saying: “One cannot publish the true results of research papers if they shed the light on a problem.” (See a related article, “Self-Censorship in Arab Higher Education: an Untold Problem.”)

Lack of freedom of research and concerns about the security of academic staff, corruption, lack of qualified teaching staff and poor funding, and difficult access to research literature and updated scientific papers were among the challenges listed by respondents.

“The aim of higher education is not only to provide professional skills or conduct research, but also to allow students to be critical and creative and able to think out of the box.”

Salam Said
A lecturer in economics and social sciences at Karlsruhe University, in Germany

Higher Education’s Role in Peace Building

Salam Said, a lecturer in economics and social sciences at Karlsruhe University, in Germany, underlined the importance of higher education in peace building and reconciliation.

“The aim of higher education is not only to provide professional skills or conduct research, but also to allow students to be critical and creative and able to think out of the box,” she said.

“It helps keep the youth away from involvement in the armed conflict and allows them to exchange values of peace, democracy and solidarity. However, universities should be totally independent, a condition that is hard to implement in patriarchal societies and repressive political contexts,” Said added.

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All speakers stressed the need for urgent interventions to salvage the higher education system. These include boosting digital infrastructure, enhancing academic staff through capacity building, improving teaching methods and digital skills, updating labs, facilitating international academic exchange as well as access to international research material.


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