Amid Syria’s long-running civil war, university students in the country’s opposition-held northwestern region struggle to stay enrolled at higher-education institutions that themselves face huge challenges.
Among the most prominent challenges are the lack of international recognition of the universities’ degrees and students’ inability to pay tuition fees in U.S. dollars rather than in the Syrian pound. Successive devaluations have pushed the pound’s value to record lows. The current exchange rate is about 13,000 Syrian pounds to one U.S. dollar.
While efforts are underway to help universities gain international recognition, students still worry about encountering degree recognition problems after graduation.
Universities started opening in northwestern Syria about ten years ago as part of an emergency plan in a region experiencing widespread warfare. It was not possible for the institutions to gain any international accrediting organisation’s recognition due to the surrounding insecurity, said Khaled Al-Radhi, a sociology professor at Idlib University.
“When relative stability was achieved, there were moves to gain academic recognition, especially from Turkey. That enabled students to equate their degrees with Turkish universities or to complete their studies there.”Khaled Al-Radhi, a professor of sociology at Idlib University
“When relative stability was achieved, there were moves to gain academic recognition, especially from Turkey,” Al-Radhi told Al-Fanar Media. “That enabled students to equate their degrees with Turkish universities or to complete their studies there.”
Idlib University is one of the most prominent universities in northwestern Syria. Others include the Free Aleppo University, the International Sham University, Al-Shamal Private University, Mari Private University, the Anatolian Academy of Sciences (Anadolu Akademi), Al-Hayat University for Medical Sciences, and campuses of Turkey’s Gaziantep University.
A New Higher Education Council
To help deal with quality-assurance concerns, educators set up the independent Higher Education Council (HEC) of North Syria in 2016. Idlib University is one of about six institutions the council has accredited so far. The university is also seeking programmatic accreditation for some of its faculties. It recently announced that its College of Pharmacy had joined the European Association of Faculties of Pharmacy.
The Higher Education Council recently announced that it was joining the Asia-Pacific Quality Network (APQN), one of the world’s five largest umbrella networks for education quality-assurance organisations. APQN’s members include about 235 higher education councils, in addition to other international and regional accreditation bodies.
Mahmoud Al-Assi, secretary of the Higher Education Council, told Al-Fanar Media that membership in the Asia-Pacific Quality Network increases HEC’s credibility.
“This membership opens the door to signing memorandums of partnership with international higher-education bodies and councils,” he said. “This may lead to the recognition of the degrees granted by the universities in northwestern Syria that are members of the same network.”
The membership carries academic benefits too, Al-Assi said. It gives faculty members opportunities to participate in research forums, conferences, and other scientific activities, and it establishes the legitimacy of the educational processes of universities in northern Syria.
Qutaiba Al-Farhat, a professor of Turkish at Free Aleppo University, says gaining academic recognition is “a very complex topic that needs long work.” However, he is optimistic about northern Syrian universities’ efforts to gain recognition from Turkish and international universities, by sharing curricula, quality standards, and learning measurement tools with some of these universities.
Graduates’ employment prospects in northern Syria are improving as a result, Al-Farhat said.
“Hundreds of our graduates secured jobs in hospitals and humanitarian organisations based on their university degrees,” he said, “and the authorities controlling the region have made these graduates a priority in recruitment.”
Degree Recognition Issues
For students who want to work or continue their studies abroad, the lack of international recognition of their degrees is one more hurdle to overcome.
“My father has not worked for four years. He borrowed money to pay my annual tuition fees last year, but this year, we are no longer able to do it again. We are displaced and live in a rented house. We struggle to cover our living expenses alone.”Reham Al-Abdullah, an education student at Idlib University
Abdullah Al-Fares, who earned a medical degree from the Free Aleppo University, is one who succeeded. He managed to get his credentials validated in France after immigrating there. Students have to pass an examination to prove their suitability before they can enrol in a Turkish or European university, he said.
In September, the Free Aleppo University announced that it had obtained official accreditation from the Turkish Higher Education Council.
However, students still worry about the lack of wider recognition of their universities.
“I am afraid of losing more than six years of study unless I manage to get my degree accredited by a Turkish university in the future,” said Nour Suleiman, a medical student at Free Aleppo University. “I want to specialise in orthopaedic surgery,” he said. “I have no choice but to continue studying in northern Syria.”
Paying Tuition in U.S. Dollars
Another major problem facing university students in northwestern Syria is having to pay tuition fees in U.S. dollars.
Ahmed Al-Shartah, a third-year civil engineering student at Idlib University, was able to pay the required instalment after he got a job drawing engineering plans for a contractor working in the region. Al-Shartah earns $150 a month, which allows him to continue his studies.
“I am currently pursuing my studies without problems,” Al-Shartah told Al-Fanar Media. “My work does not conflict with my studies, as I work from home most of the time.”
At a time when families are pinched by high living costs and jobs are scarce, however, others have not been as lucky.
Reham Al-Abdullah, a student at the Faculty of Education at Idlib University, was forced to quit school because she was unable to pay the $150 annual tuition fee, plus another $300 to purchase books and cover transportation expenses.
“The biggest challenges students face during their studies are their unstable residence due to displacement, and the difficulty of having to move from their places due to war-related security risks and bombing.”Abdulaziz Al-Daghim, president of the Free Aleppo University
“My father has not worked for four years,” she said. “He borrowed money to pay my tuition fees last year, but this year, we are no longer able to do it again. We are displaced and live in a rented house. We struggle to cover living expenses alone.”
Other students have quit their studies and taken jobs to help their families, especially if the family’s main breadwinner has been unable to find employment.
Mohammed al-Osama, an architecture student at Idlib University, stopped his studies to help support his family. He hopes he will later be able to return to university classes.
Limited Assistance Available
Abdulaziz Al-Daghim, president of the Free Aleppo University, says there are some organisations that help students pay tuition fees, but their resources are not sufficient to meet the needs of the majority of those seeking assistance.
While some groups have organised online fund-raising campaigns to help students, Al-Daghim said: “The biggest challenges students face during their studies are their unstable residence due to displacement, and the difficulty of having to move from their places due to war-related security risks and bombing.”
Other challenges include the lack of university housing for students, meaning they have to travel long distances to attend.
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