The Syrian Refugee Crisis and Higher Education: A View From Lebanon

Doing our best to ignore the rumbling of military tanks outside a Beirut classroom, we listened as a group of Syrian university students shared with us how they had fled their homes and studies in Syria and were struggling to continue their education in Lebanon.

We heard from a young woman I’ll call Rania, who was forced to re-start her studies in Lebanon after her university in Syria closed due to the conflict. She described her struggles to adjust to the English instruction in Lebanon, as her studies in Syria had been in Arabic. Another student told us that he worked 45-60 hours every week to afford tuition and support his family. An activist student described physical intimidation by Lebanese political groups on campus, leading him to explore study alternatives outside Lebanon.

Despite the students’ diverse backgrounds, their stories shared certain themes: displacement, uncertainty, and insecurity. But running through the narrative was one common thread: a passion for education.

Last month, I visited Lebanon as part of an IIE–University of California, Davis Human Rights Initiative study on the conflict in Syria, the consequent refugee crisis, and its impact on higher education.

As the conflict enters its fourth year, the situation is as bleak as ever. One quarter of Syria’s population is dead or displaced, devastating its higher education sector. Tens of thousands of Syrian faculty and university students have fled the violence to neighboring countries like Lebanon, where many live as refugees.

IIE is responding by providing emergency assistance and educational opportunities to Syrian students and scholars. IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund is supporting more than 50 Syrian professors and researchers to resume their academic work in safety outside Syria. The IIE Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis connected 70 Syrian students with scholarships in the United States in 2013, and plans to help up to 1000 students in 2014.

These efforts are not enough. To prevent a lost generation of Syrians who are cut off from their studies, the international community must also find local and regional solutions within the countries hosting Syrian refugees. For this reason, IIE is partnering with UC Davis to produce the first known study on the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis on higher education. We hope that this study will convince governments, donors, and international organizations to consider higher education initiatives an essential part of the humanitarian response and future development efforts. We also hope it will be useful to practitioners and organizations as they design educational programs for Syrian refugees. The IIE-UC Davis research team completed a preliminary study in Jordan in May 2013, and we will be in northern Iraq and Turkey later this summer.

Our trip to Lebanon was sobering. My last visit to this stunningly beautiful yet perpetually insecure country was in 2005, just prior to the outbreak of a brief and devastating war with Israel. At that time, there was a sense of optimism, as Lebanese felt their country was on the path to stability.

Today’s Lebanon could not be more different. With over one million Syrians living amongst the country’s pre-war population of four million, the conflict in neighboring Syria is transposing itself on the streets of Beirut, Tripoli, and the Beqa’a Valley, with daily violence between pro- and anti-Assad factions, and a spiraling economy. This has created on overt sense of hostility towards Syrians in the country, including, we learned, on some university campuses.

Over a ten-day period, we met with dozens of Syrian university students whose education was interrupted due to the conflict. We also met with Lebanese university administrators and service providers working with refugees. Our goal was simple: to examine the educational needs of these displaced students and to identify programming opportunities to increase their access to higher education.

According to several Lebanese universities, including the Lebanese University (the country’s largest and only public university) and the American University of Beirut, the number of Syrians enrolled at their institutions is actually declining. This counter-intuitive reality is explained by a range of barriers that Syrians confront in continuing their education in Lebanon. The most significant include tuition and living costs, both much lower in Syria, and limited English and French proficiency among the students. Syrian students also described their struggle to maintain academic focus, given the ongoing crisis in their homeland and the long hours many work to support their families. One student explained, “I’m working to afford to go to university, but I don’t actually have time to go to the university.”

Yet, with Lebanon’s fragile security and political situation, struggling economy, and the growing resentment of Syrians in the country, it is clear that most Lebanese institutions of higher education are unable to go the extra mile for their Syrian colleagues.

We in the international community must do more to support Syrian students to continue their university education in Lebanon or abroad.

Here are few ideas:

  • build the capacity of pre-enrollment preparatory programs at Lebanese universities for Syrian students who hold academic promise but lack English or French proficiency;
  • provide supplemental academic and career support to enrolled Syrian students in order to address financial obstacles that might prevent them from completing their studies; 
  • connect enrolled and recently graduated Syrian students with opportunities to work with refugees, particularly in the areas of primary and secondary education; 
  • establish scholarship funds for Syrians to study at Lebanese universities or universities outside of Lebanon, particularly those students who demonstrate a commitment to community service and supporting their fellow refugees.

Any solution that exacerbates tensions between the Lebanese and Syrian communities is not really a solution at all. Programs should aim to benefit Lebanese students and institutions as well, many of whom are also facing the effects of political instability and poverty.

I hope that I have the chance to return to Lebanon and that the situation there improves. In the meantime, I take hope from the talent, drive, and determination of Syrian university students like Rania, who represent the future of Syria. With our support, they will be able to continue their studies and return one day to rebuild their homeland.

IIE will release the full Lebanon assessment in May 2014. It will launch the regional study at the Clinton Global Initiative’s annual meeting in New York in September 2014. For more information, please contact Senior Program and Research Officer, James R. King, at