The "Delivering Higher Education to Syrian Refugees" Workshop: A Rare Moment of Guarded Optimism

The conflict in Syria has become the 21st century’s worst humanitarian crisis. The numbers are staggering:

  • Over 300,000 killed
  • close to 4.5 million refugees
  • more than 9 million internally displaced peoples

Combined, that’s over half of Syria’s pre-war population.

The devastation of Syria’s once robust higher education sector is no less dramatic. According to the UNESCO Institute of Statistics, 26% of Syrian young people (including young women) were participating in tertiary education on the eve of the conflict. Along with these 350,000 students, approximately 8,000 faculty were teaching and conducting research. Inside Syria, the higher education system has been decimated, and we estimate that amongst the refugee population are as many as 2,000 university professionals and a minimum of 100,000 university-qualified students.

While the U.S. and other governments around the world debate their responses to the Syrian conflict and the resulting refugee crisis, these students remain cut off from their education indefinitely – that is, unless the international community steps in to help.

Some humanitarian actors, even those within the international education community, have viewed the higher education of these millions of displaced Syrians as a luxury. They have considered higher education to be a noble goal that did not necessarily belong on the agenda of international governments and organizations given the dire humanitarian situation and unmet primary and secondary educational needs of children. This perception has largely changed, in part due to the unrelenting demand from Syrians themselves for higher education opportunities.

It is now widely recognized that without an educated generation of future leaders, the rebuilding of Syria will be impossible. Additionally, we know that as millions of Syrians settle – potentially permanently – in Europe, North America, and parts of the Middle East-North Africa region, education presents an important alternative to crime and radicalization.

These realities have led to a substantial increase in international programming to support higher education opportunities for Syrian refugees. Equally significant, Syrian enrollment at universities in Turkey – the country hosting the largest number of Syrians – has risen dramatically in the last few years. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that the demand continues to far outstrip the opportunities available. With each passing year, the problem compounds itself as more Syrian youth who would have pursued university studies are cut off from their educations and careers. There remains a tremendous funding gap, as well as a need for better knowledge sharing and enhanced coordination between international actors, educational institutions, governmental agencies within the hosting countries, and Syrian groups.

Recognizing these needs, on October 6-7, 2015, Al-Fanar Media in partnership with IIE and the Dutch NGO SPARK organized a workshop in Istanbul, Turkey on the topic of “Delivering Higher Education to Syrian Refugees.” The workshop brought together stakeholders from regional and international governments, UN bodies, local and international NGOs, universities, and Syrian students and professors, to share best practices and enhance coordination.

This very practical workshop took several important steps toward improving knowledge sharing, facilitating collaborations, and exploring the scale up of existing efforts. Participants, including IIE, presented concrete ideas and proposals, soliciting both feedback and partnerships. Topics covered included specific scholarship programs, blended and online learning, vocational education, students’ administrative and documentation hurdles, and developing work opportunities, among others. Building on the workshop’s success, another event likely will be convened in March 2016.

The workshop report, which can be accessed here, claimed that “There was near-universal agreement that the workshop was one of the most useful events that [participants] had attended recently on the subject of refugee education.” A bold claim but very true. I certainly departed Istanbul buoyed by the many remarkable individuals in attendance who are committed to increasing higher education opportunities for Syrian youth, as well as by the successful and scalable models that are already out there. IIE was proud to partner with Al-Fanar Media in organizing the event.

IIE will continue to do its part to help address the educational needs of Syria’s youth through the IIE Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis, Emergency Student Fund for Syrian Refugees, the Scholar Rescue Fund, and original research on Syrian refugee access to higher education. And we are not alone. An excellent and extensive article about Syrian refugee students from Inside Higher Ed outlines some of the many approaches organizations are taking to address this crisis of education. Many of these efforts were represented in Istanbul.

My hope is that this workshop will jump start better coordination, increased funding, and a broader consensus that higher education for Syrian youth is at once a critically important humanitarian issue and a significant strategic concern. The stakes are far too high to ignore, and there are too many motivated and talented Syrian young people that deserve our support.

Read the Al-Fanar Media workshop report