Whereas overall numbers of refugees entering Germany have been on the decline since last year, significantly more of them have enrolled for university courses in recent months, says a survey by the German Rectors' Conference or HRK.
According to a survey conducted by the HRK, representing the heads of German universities among its member institutions, a total of 1,140 refugees are currently enrolled for studies, which is five times as many as half a year ago. Furthermore, refugees consulted course and career guidance services 24,000 times during the last winter semester – more than twice as many times as in the previous semester.
The HRK says that these figures show that university efforts to integrate refugees who are interested in and qualified for studying are really taking effect. Measures such as provision of language and preparatory subject courses and social counselling are supported financially via federal and state government programs.
Around 5,700 refugees enrolled for the language and prep courses last winter semester, which is roughly 80% up on the figure for last year’s summer semester.
Nearly 70% of this group wish to enrol for bachelor degree programs, and just below 20% for masters programs. Around two-thirds of these prospective students come from Syria, while further large groups are from Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq.
Abdel Aty Massoud, a member of the Education and Scientific Research Committee in Egypt's parliament, sparked debate after he suggested banning students who are from Syria and other countries from enrolling in Egyptian public universities. As a result, the committee was divided into two camps. While some backed this suggestion because universities are overcrowded, others opposed it, arguing that close bilateral ties between Egypt and Syria need to be preserved.
The Education and Scientific Research Parliamentary Committee met Feb. 12 to discuss Massoud’s proposal. The meeting was attended by then-Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Ashraf El Shihy.
Some members believe that it is necessary to deny enrollment to Syrian students and that Egyptian students be given priority because of the lack of openings in the universities. Others, however, considered that it is necessary that all Syrian students be admitted to universities and have equal rights in terms of tuition fees and attendance.
Alif Kamel, a member of the committee, told the press Feb. 11, “The demand that Egyptian and Syrian students be treated equally must be heeded, to highlight Arab unity and Egyptian-Syrian cooperation. But it would be an obligation for Egypt to stand by its Arab brethren should more universities be established in Egypt,” in reference to the overwhelming number of Egyptian students and the limited number of universities in Egypt.
Kamel added, “Egypt is not a wealthy state that can assimilate a large number of students from other countries into its education sector. Syrian students cannot be enrolled at the expense of Egyptian students; priority should be given to Egyptian citizens. Egyptian students need to be enrolled first, and in case there is a surplus of seats in universities, Syrian students may be admitted without any discrimination between them and Egyptians.”
Shihy said during the meeting, “It is unacceptable that well-off Syrian students take the Egyptian students’ seats and rights. I will not have any student of any citizenship replace Egyptian students.”
Ghida Shafiq Qalaji, secretary-general of the Syrian General Commission for Refugees and Development, an organization in Egypt that provides assistance to Syrian refugees, told Al-Monitor, “Syrian students have put up with a lot of suffering. Everybody knows about the internal war and crises the Syrian people have suffered from, which forced them to abandon their houses and jobs and resort to Arab countries, including Egypt, which had always supported us. Yet things have changed this year. After Syrian and Egyptian students paid equal tuition fees, which were minimal and convenient, universities are heading toward the implementation of a new system requiring that tuition fees be paid in dollars instead of Egyptian pounds. This system, however, is applicable to students who do not hold a degree from Egyptian high schools.”
The tuition decision requires that foreigners, be they refugees or immigrants, pay a higher fee in hard currency, contrary to the past when they paid minimal fees just like Egyptian students.
She added, “For instance, all faculties of medicine at Egyptian universities are requiring that all refugees and immigrants pay $7,000 per year. There is no distinction between refugees and immigrants in the education sector. It is impossible for us to pay this sum.”
Qalaji added, “Nevertheless, given our suffering, Syrian students willing to be enrolled in any public university [are an exception and are given a] 50% reduction of tuition fees. For instance, in order for a Syrian student to register at the faculty of medicine, $3,500 needs to be paid. This sum is also big. Where can the Syrian student get this sum from?”
Qalaji viewed that it is impossible for refugees to pay this sum, despite the reduction, and demanded that Syrian refugees and Egyptian students pay the minimal fee of about 600 Egyptian pounds ($37) in public universities.
She continued, “I don't know why universities took such a decision that serves a ban preventing the admission of Syrian and other refugees in Egyptian universities. We know well that Egypt is facing an economic crisis and needs to boost foreign currency supply. We also know that there is huge number of Syrian refugees in Egypt. … But why do Syrian refugees have to pay the cost?”
According to Sept. 23, 2016, UNHCR figures, “As of August 31, 187,838 refugees and asylum-seekers have been registered with UNHCR in Egypt. The largest number, 116,175 — or 62% of the total [number of refugees] — were Syrians, followed by 31,200 Sudanese, 10,941 Ethiopians, 7,254 Somalis and 7,000 Iraqis, among others.”
Qalaji concluded, “Egypt is a host country of Syrian and African refugees. In the name of brotherhood, we call upon Egypt to cancel the new system adopted by the government in universities and bring equality back between Egyptian and Syrian students, so that minimal fees can be paid in Egyptian pounds, as was the case last year.”
Egypt ratified on June 28, 1980, the 1951 Refugee Convention providing for the social and legal protection of refugees without discrimination as to race, religion or country of origin.
Constitution Article 93 stipulates that “the state is committed to the agreements, covenants and international conventions of human rights that were ratified by Egypt.”
Speaking to Al-Monitor, Education and Scientific Research Parliamentary Committee member Samir Ghattas rejected Massoud’s proposal, saying, “Egypt’s ties with brethren Syrian people are historical and deep. We certainly reject the proposal to ban Syrian and other Arab and African students from being enrolled in Egyptian universities. We stressed the need that they receive equal treatment regarding tuition fees, which Egyptian students pay in Egyptian pounds. This was decided by the committee at the end of the meeting, and the minister complied with our request. Yet a distinction needs to be made between Syrian refugees and immigrant students, as immigrants and refugees should not be equated with Egyptian students. Well-off Syrian students who got their secondary school degrees from Saudi Arabia, for instance, will not benefit from low fees.”
The proposal to ban the entry of Syrian refugees to Egyptian universities is on hold until parliament approves or rejects it during the next few weeks.
An assessment study by the UN Children's Fund found that Syrian children living in Lebanon are facing challenges in formal education.
“Education is the best thing in life,” said a 12-year-old girl in Jeb Jannine, Lebanon. And yet, a large number of Syrian refugee children are not in school, despite efforts by governments and UN agencies.
Among the surveyed children of primary school age (6 to 14 years), 48% were found to be out of school, with the highest rate of out-of-school children found in the Bekaa (70% not attending) and the lowest in the South (32% not attending).
During interviews and focus group discussions, 66 per cent of the 80 children asked about education said they were not attending school. If the situation does not improve dramatically, Syria risks ending up with an under-educated generation.
These rates are significantly higher among children of secondary school age (15 to 17 years): 84% of children of this age group are out of school.
Failure and drop-out rates among Syrian children are twice the national average for Lebanese children. UNHCR estimates that 20 per cent of Syrian refugee children drop out of school in Lebanon —the biggest problem being among children over 12 years old
In general, the most reported demand-related barriers were the cost of education, child labour, child marriage, the need to stay at home, cultural reasons and transportation costs.
Supply-side barriers reported included: the school did not allow enrolment, there was no school in the area, there was no space in the school, there was violence at school or there were language/curriculum difficulties.
Some refugees also reported difficulties in registering their children for school without residency papers, although this is not a requirement from the Lebanese Ministry of Education and Higher Education.
How has the war in Syria impacted access to higher education?
Before the civil war, a quarter of Syrians went on to training or higher education. Five years later, the conflict has put a serious dent in education access for Syrians in the country and those who have been displaced, threatening to create an entire generation without higher education.
A recent EU report estimated there are 90,000 Syrians in the Middle East who could potentially attend university but cannot, due to barriers of language, cost, work and family obligations, missing documentation, and a lack of capacity at universities in the region.
Yet we see that for many Syrians, significant expectations and demand for education remain. The current higher education structures and traditional development and humanitarian aid models are struggling to cope with this scale and complexity of need.
What can be done to support Syrians seeking higher education amid disruption and displacement?
We need innovative approaches to reconnect Syrian students with higher education now, as well as meet the needs of others to come. Digital education provides the flexibility vital to balancing schooling with the social and work pressures our students face in their present circumstances. At Jamiya, we use a “blended” approach, supplementing online education with face-to-face tuition and local learning centers for an interactive, project-based experience.
We are currently offering pilot courses for refugees in Amman and Za’atari camp in Jordan, facilitated at Norwegian Refugee Council and Jesuit Refugee Service centers, and using an applied IT and global studies curriculum developed by Syrian academics in exile alongside the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. Already at this stage of trialing our approach, we have found that this blended education model has opened up opportunities where none existed before.
How are you involving a network of Syrian academics?
The Syrian higher education network has not disappeared; it has been dispersed, displaced, and disconnected. There are several thousand Syrian academics who have fled the conflict and are now based in the region or elsewhere in the world. Using online platforms helps us to unlock the capacity, knowledge, and skills of this community of academics, keeping the diaspora engaged in enabling the continuity of education during a period of uncertainty.
Does the Jamiya Project’s support for Syrian refugee students go beyond schooling?
From speaking with students in our course and other Syrian refugees in Amman and Za’atari camp, we have learned a great deal about underestimated obstacles that prevent refugees from accessing higher education, and the various factors that motivate or discourage them.
One thing we’ve found is that Syrian refugee students really benefit from informal support outside of the classroom, including being connected to a wider community. This led us to match Jamiya students with mentors from across the world to help encourage students to continue their studies despite other serious strains, such as exhaustion from long workdays, and personal doubts or disheartenment.
Why is access to higher education so crucial for this group?
When asked what university means to them, Jamiya’s students have answered that it is “the first step to a better future.” In the short-term, providing Syrian students with learning and qualifications will help open the door to employment and further study. And we also hope that once Syria stabilizes, a young generation of skilled, knowledgeable leaders can actively participate in the country’s reconstruction.
While they may return to a Syria where thousands of school buildings have either been bombed or commandeered for military use, their role within a resilient higher education network can help rebuild peace and prosperity in the region.
The Jamiya Project is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.
I was born and raised in Syria. I did my bachelor’s degree at the University of Damascus and was pursuing my master’s and dreaming of an academic career when the uprising started.
Everyone thought it was going to be over in a matter of days, or weeks. The pace of life slowed down massively, and many things were put on hold. We waited, but unfortunately it the chaos grew. Days turned into months and years, and the life of every single citizen has been affected in one way or another.
Academics have been targets for misfortune throughout the country. This is either because the values of enlightenment and freedom they represent are perceived as a threat, or because they are considered valuable when being traded for ransom.
Some scholars have been forced out of their offices or laboratories to join a fight that was never theirs. A great number of Syrian academics have been killed, tortured, abducted or forced to leave the country to save their lives and their families. My supervising professor had to flee the country without prior notice after her husband, also a respected professor at the same university, was abducted. She feared she would be next.
Funding has disappeared and there’s a lack of research facilities and equipment. And then there’s the more fundamental scarcity of basic resources such as electricity, fuel and water. Some universities have had to move to temporary buildings that are not suited for teaching, let alone hosting research facilities.
Achieving academic excellence was always my ambition, but once the war started it also felt like an obligation. I wanted to learn the skills that I could later use to help rebuild my country.
Lost dreams As the war went on, with no foreseeable ending, I knew that those dreams were on the verge of being lost. I thought I would have to enlist in the military and all I felt was despair: instead of rebuilding my country I was faced with the possibility of killing or being killed for a vain cause that was nothing to do with me.
Then I heard about Cara, the Council for At-Risk Academics. They are a community that helps academics in conflict zones find a temporary sanctuary where they can continue their academic work and arm themselves with the knowledge and experience they need to play an effective role in their countries once the risk is over. When I first approached Cara I thought that it wouldn’t be able to help me on short notice, and I imagined it would have strict criteria that I would not fulfil. The idea of starting a funded PhD degree at a university in the UK, where I knew higher education was outstanding, was only a far-fetched dream.
Cara saved my dreams from dying. Its understanding and compassion gave me hope again. It was such a relief to learn that, in the midst of all the chaos, there were organisations that recognised the importance of empowering academics in countries devastated by war.
The team were determined to help me find an academic placement that suited me. They tried tirelessly to match my research interests with possible programmes and connect me with potential supervisors until they managed to secure a placefor me at the University of Kent where I am now doing a PhD.
Healing my country
I’m eternally grateful for this opportunity. And I have resolved once again to become the academic I aspired to be, who will eventually help in resurrecting and healing my broken country. Meanwhile, despite the ravaging war, young Syrian academics back home are still working to achieve their aims.
I urge UK universities and educational institutions to take in and adopt more Syrian academics. Once they conclude their studies, they want to go back to their home universities with experience of how the higher education system in the UK operates, so they can help construct a similarly profound system back in Syria. When the war is over, this higher education system will unleash to humanity the buried creativity and brilliance of the country.
Premises and facilities are replaceable. What is irreplaceable are the minds that occupy those premises and operate those facilities.