Higher education for Syria

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE -

Ed­u­cat­ing refugee chil­dren was high on the agenda when donors met in Lon­don in early Fe­bru­ary for a record-set­ting day of fundrais­ing for Syria. As No­bel Peace Prize lau­re­ate Malala Yousafzai ex­plained, “Los­ing this gen­er­a­tion is a cost the world can­not [af­ford].”

It is im­por­tant to re­mem­ber, how­ever, that Syria’s schoolage chil­dren are not the only gen­er­a­tion at risk of be­ing lost. The In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Education (IIE) es­ti­mates that as many as 450,000 of the more than four mil­lion Syr­ian refugees in the Middle East and North Africa are 18-22 years old, and that ap­prox­i­mately 100,000 of them are qual­i­fied for univer­sity. They, too, are in des­per­ate need of op­por­tu­ni­ties to fur­ther their stud­ies.

Peace will even­tu­ally come to Syria. It is im­pos­si­ble to know ex­actly when, but all wars end. One day, the guns will fall silent, and the coun­try will be­gin to re­build. As we have learned from the dra­matic fail­ures in Iraq and Afghanistan, re­con­struc­tion will be suc­cess­ful only if Syr­i­ans – not out­siders – lead the ef­fort. With mil­lions of Syr­i­ans seek­ing refuge abroad, the coun­try will face a des­per­ate short­fall of skilled, ed­u­cated work­ers just when it needs them most.

That is why a global ef­fort to pro­vide higher education for Syr­ian refugees must be un­der­taken. More than $10 bil­lion was raised at the con­fer­ence in Lon­don. Those pledges must now be backed up with con­crete tech­ni­cal sup­port and a mas­sive, in­no­va­tive in­ter­ven­tion in the coun­tries host­ing the most refugees: Turkey, Le­banon, and Jor­dan. Such an ef­fort would not only pro­vide hope to those who have been dis­placed by the war and re­duce the in­cen­tive to flee to Europe; it would en­hance the host coun­tries’ ed­u­ca­tional ca­pac­i­ties.

Many univer­si­ties are al­ready work­ing to help refugees. At the Cen­tral Euro­pean Univer­sity in Bu­dapest, stu­dents and fac­ulty rushed to as­sist the refugees who were crowded into the city’s train sta­tions last fall. We have also set up spe­cial classes to teach refugees English, Hun­gar­ian, and asy­lum law, and we of­fer schol­ar­ships to qual­i­fied ap­pli­cants. We have brought in Syr­ian schol­ars to dis­cuss the even­tual re­con­struc­tion of their coun­try. And our univer­sity is just one ex­am­ple among many across Europe that are sim­i­larly en­gaged.

And yet, as im­por­tant as th­ese ef­forts may be, they risk leav­ing out the refugees in the coun­tries neigh­bour­ing Syria. Turkey alone is host­ing tens of thou­sands of Syr­i­ans who would have qual­i­fied to at­tend univer­sity back home. Most of them are nei­ther study­ing nor work­ing. Fewer than 5% are en­rolled in Turk­ish univer­si­ties. More fund­ing for pub­lic and pri­vate univer­si­ties would help ex­pand ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties for refugees and na­tives alike.

In Lon­don, Amel Kar­boul, the sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the Maghreb Eco­nomic Fo­rum, called on pri­vate tech­nol­ogy com­pa­nies to pro­vide “cre­ative, maybe even dis­rup­tive” so­lu­tions to the chal­lenge of ed­u­cat­ing refugees. In­deed, pro­vid­ing such a large num­ber of po­ten­tial stu­dents with the op­por­tu­nity to study will re­quire the cre­ation of a new form of cost-ef­fec­tive univer­sity education, com­bin­ing on­line cour­ses with class­room teach­ing in in­ex­pen­sive pop-up fa­cil­i­ties.

Teach­ing should be of­fered in sev­eral lan­guages, in­clud­ing English, and the fo­cus of the cur­ricu­lum should be tech­ni­cal and prac­ti­cal. Of­fer­ings could in­clude train­ing in crit­i­cal think­ing and cour­ses on com­puter cod­ing. The em­pha­sis of the ef­fort would be on ac­ces­si­bil­ity and flex­i­bil­ity, so that stu­dents could work while they stud­ied.

A hand­ful of tech­ni­cal de­grees could be of­fered at first – in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy, pro­ject man­age­ment, con­struc­tion man­age­ment, ur­ban plan­ning, teacher train­ing, pub­lic health, and nurs­ing. Course­work would also high­light the cul­tural sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween Syr­ian refugees and their host coun­tries. Pub­lic spa­ces where di­verse groups can mix are cru­cial not only to education, but also to man­ag­ing post­con­flict sit­u­a­tions.

Europe should lead the way, with money as well as ex­per­tise. Repli­cat­ing the Syr­ian govern­ment’s cur­ricu­lum will not be help­ful. The first stage of the pro­ject will re­quire train­ing teach­ers and ad­min­is­tra­tors, as well as ed­u­cat­ing pro­fes­sors in new ped­a­gog­i­cal ap­proaches, in­clud­ing how to de­velop on­line cour­ses.

The education on of­fer would not be lux­u­ri­ous. Stu­dents would not have ac­cess to mas­sive li­braries, gyms, or ivy-clad quad­ran­gles. The in­sti­tu­tions they at­tend would not be world-class re­search univer­si­ties. But the education they re­ceive will en­sure that Syria’s refugees are of­fered a fu­ture – one with brighter prospects for them­selves and their coun­try.

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