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Syria’s Private Universities Struggle With Costs but Still Grow

Syria’s private universities are in a bind. Economic factors have made them more accessible to students who couldn’t afford them before the current civil war broke out a decade ago. But at the same time, few of these institutions are making profit, administrators say, and this threatens their survival, or at least their expansion and development.

Private universities attract students like Omar Eliwi, who always wanted to become a doctor, but his final high school exam results were below the almost perfect score Syria’s public universities require for admission to a medical college. He decided to enroll in a private university with easier entry requirements.

In 2019, his fee at the University of Kalamoon, a private institution in Deir Atiyah, Syria, was around $4,000, an expensive but still affordable amount, with his father working in the Gulf. Last year, however, the value of the same annual payment in Syrian currency, relative to the dollar, was almost halved.

That’s good news for Eliwi but bad news for the university, which is banned from raising fees for continuing students. Additional factors putting a financial squeeze on Syria’s private universities include rising inflation and the free fall of the Syrian pound against the U.S. dollar, which have steeply increased their operating costs.

“I don’t think there is any private university that made a notable profit in the past two years.”

Hala Alchach
A human resources director at the Arab International University, a private institution near Damascus.

“I don’t think there is any private university that made a notable profit in the past two years,” said Hala Alchach, a human resources director at the Arab International University, a private institution near Damascus.

Rising Costs for Universities

The university also has various expenses to cover, such as restoring buildings and infrastructure that were damaged during a decade of civil war and generating electricity to deal with long power cuts, Alchach said. (See two related articles, “Syrian Higher Education Faces a Long Recovery” and “Displaced Syrian Private Universities Struggle to Educate Their Students.”)

The value of the Syrian pound has dropped sharply since the start of the war in 2011, especially in the aftermath of international sanctions imposed on the Syrian government and the economic crisis in neighboring Lebanon. Before 2011, one U.S. dollar traded for about 47 Syrian pounds, but it has a street value of more than 3,000 Syrian pounds today, according to recent news reports.

Syria’s private universities can raise the fees they charge new students to partially cope with inflation, but once a student is registered, the fee cannot be raised in their following years.

“Universities lose money on older students and it’s in their benefit to graduate them quickly and to take new ones,” Alchach added.

To ease the burden on universities, the Ministry of Higher Education raised the number of students allocated to each professor or lecturer to around 35 students, up from 20, said Abdul Ghani Maa Bared, vice president for international affairs and scientific research at the Arab International University and a former president of Damascus University.

Growth in Student Numbers

The number of students attending private universities in Syria rose by 56 percent in recent years, from around 32,000 in 2017 to around 50,000 in 2019, semi-official sources indicate. But private universities still account for only 5 percent of total university students in Syria. (See a related article, “Syrian Universities Struggle to Survive After a Decade of War.”)

Syria’s Private Universities – Antioch Syrian U.
A classroom at the recently opened Antioch Syrian University. Private universities continued to open during Syria’s civil war, but now face unexpectedly high operating costs (Photo: From the university’s Facebook page).

New private universities were established during the war, reaching 23 institutions across the country. Rakan Razouk, president of newly established Antioch Syrian University, said the university management knew that the institution would not make a profit in its first few years, but an excessive operating cost wasn’t expected.

“Our expenses are increasing significantly, and this is slowing the expansion and the development of the university,” Razouk said. He added that it is difficult to compensate for the additional costs only by increasing the fees for new students, since previously enrolled students continue to pay the same fees they were paying when they joined the university. These old students are the majority of university students.

Another big challenge facing private and partly public universities in Syria is an acute shortage of trained and competent teaching staff due to the migration of thousands of master’s degree and Ph.D. students abroad due to the current situation in the country, Maa Bared said.

“It’s a supply and demand situation. There is a fierce competition over university teachers,” he added.

Impacts on Students and Professors

The shortage is limiting students’ flexibility in selecting modules and is creating more conflict when students make their study plan each semester, said Rasha, an architecture student at the Arab International University. “You have to put your name on the waiting list for certain classes and keep updating the university website to immediately add your name if a student drops the module,” she added.

The increasing work and financial pressure on the remaining teaching staff is impacting education quality and professors’ motivation for updating their curriculums, said W.A., a quality assurance officer and a professor at a private university, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his job.

“When you’re living under sanctions and siege, everything in the education sector is impacted, such as traveling and participating in international education conferences and cultural exchanges,” he said. (See a related article, “Ambitious Syrian Students Often Enter a Maze.”)

“When you’re living under sanctions and siege, everything in the education sector is impacted, such as traveling and participating in international education conferences and cultural exchanges.”

A quality assurance officer at a private university who asked to remain anonymous

Professors’ salaries at private universities are comparatively higher than at public ones, especially in faculties such as medicine and pharmacy but are still low when compared to salaries in neighboring countries.

“Living under war for ten years is a dilemma. Professors don’t have energy or incentives to give more and are rejecting any update for their outdated programs,” said W.A., the quality assurance officer.

Students Want to Leave Syria

W.A. said his biggest challenge was convincing his students, most of whom have lived half of their lives under war, of the importance of completing their education and building a future in Syria.

“Our students are hardworking, but all of them say they want to leave once they graduate,” he added.

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Eliwi, the medicine student at the University of Kalamoon University, is no exception. He doesn’t have a clear destination in mind yet, but he knows that his medical residency years won’t be in Syria.

His biggest concern, however, is that the university certificate he is currently studying for won’t be accredited when he graduates, as the international ranking of many Syrian universities is falling.

“Today, our university is acknowledged abroad,” he said, “but in five years, who knows.”


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