By Rami Ayoubi and Hiba Massoud for University World News
Syria generally publishes less international indexed research than its counterparts in the Middle East. Between 1996 and 2014, Syria was ranked 101 out of 239 countries considered by the SCImago rankings with 5,151 international indexed published research documents.
Breaking the figure down, from 1996 to 2001, Syria’s overall international ranking was 98, but from 2002 to 2010 it fell to 102 and since the start of the Syrian crisis in 2011, it has risen slightly to 100.
The rankings show a steady number of international documents and citations for the period from 1996 until 2001 and a progressive increase from 2001 to early 2011. Surprisingly, the number of indexed international documents and citations of Syrian higher education institutions has continued to rise since 2011 when the Syrian crisis began. Why is that?
The link between higher education and research is very strong in Syria. The majority of that research is done at universities and 100% of the funds come from the government. There are only a few independent research institutions responsible for carrying out research in the country and these are funded by the government.
Most research is done in Arabic, with very little being done in other languages. On average, 95% of research done by a lecturer at a Syrian university is written in Arabic. The other 5% accounts for international indexed published research and is written in other languages, mainly English.
Until the late 1990s, all aspects of research and teaching at higher education institutions in Syria were conducted in Arabic.
The Syrian government, supervised by the National Leadership of the Baath Party, plays a major role in the supervision and control of the higher education system through the Ministry of Higher Education and the Higher Education Council, based at the Ministry of Higher Education.
A government committee called the University Admissions Committee, which is headed by the prime minister and functions in consultation with universities and the Ministry of Higher Education, determines the number of students to be admitted to the higher education system each year and their distribution.
The entry level for all undergraduate programmes in Syrian universities is the General Secondary Education Certificate or Bakaloria, which is taught in Arabic, except for one module in the English language. French was added to the Bakaloria system during the first decade of the 2000s.
In principle, each student passing the General Secondary Education Exams is eligible for a place in the Syrian higher education system. This ‘Open Door’ policy was adopted by the Syrian government in the early 1970s and is still in operation.
Across all faculties Arabic and English language modules are compulsory modules taught in the first two years. In order to acquire a bachelor degree, a four-year bachelor degree student has to pass 52 modules and a five-year bachelor degree student has to pass 64, with only four modules being taught in other languages, either English or French.
The rise of English and French
From 2000, with the support of the National Leadership of the Baath Party, the new president, Bashar al-Assad, who was partly educated in England and whose wife is a British citizen, began establishing private schools and universities in the country and other languages became more prominent in the Syrian higher education sector. Since then, in addition to Arabic, both English and French have become popular in higher education institutions.
This trend was accompanied by a government policy of developing the capacities of Syria’s higher education system in cooperation with Western counterparts, mainly France, the United Kingdom and Germany. Over the first decade of the 2000s, Damascus University, for example, signed and was involved in memoranda of understanding, projects and agreements with hundreds of universities and higher education institutions in Western countries.
Based on the government’s policy of rewarding talented graduates, these students were automatically appointed as teaching assistants at universities and were later sponsored by their institutions to study abroad. Thousands of Syrian students are now studying at European universities, mainly in France, Germany and the UK, after having obtained their masters and PhD qualifications.
There are issues over fair access to these rewards, but the main aim of the policy was that, once they were back in Syria, they would contribute to the social, economic and political development of the proposed new Syria.
However, most of these students, with some exemptions, were seen as the most talented in their generation and were regarded as being potential future leaders. Most proved, when they returned home, that they had the ability to compete with their international counterparts in the domain of academic publishing in languages other than Arabic.
Until mid-2005, PhD holders from so-called ‘socialist countries’, mainly the former USSR, had dominated the academic scene in Syria as a result of ideological and political support from the former USSR to the previous president of Syria.
However, the new PhD holders are studying mainly in Western countries, changing the balance of the academic scene.
By the end of 2011, there were more PhD holders from Western countries than from the former USSR. While the number of academics returning to Syria from Western universities during the crisis has fallen significantly, it is estimated that around 20% have gone back.
Surprisingly, despite European sanctions on the Syrian government and on most Syrian public bodies, this approach of relying on PhD holders from Western countries has continued, while at the same time the old socialist PhD holders have maintained ideological control of universities, in large part because of the close links between universities and government over key appointments in the Ministry of Higher Education and the Office of Education and Higher Education attached to the General Leadership of the Baath Party.
This dynamic has brought conflict over academic publication. While the old socialists tend to believe more in national and traditional methods of publishing academic research, the new returners tend to believe more in international and new ways of publishing academic research.
This contradiction is reflected in the academic journals they aim to publish in. While the former tend to publish in local, Arabic journals, the latter tend to publish in international, English-language journals. Each group thinks its own strategy is the best.
This contradiction has led to increased competition between the two groups. While the competitive advantage of the old socialists lies in publishing at the local level, the competitive advantage of those who have studied in Western countries lies in publishing at the international level. This competition is regarded as one of the major reasons for the steady increase in international publications, even during the crisis.
A recent report produced by the National Erasmus+ Office in Syria and co-funded by the European Commission, found that almost all of the top 1,000 international Syrian researchers who are currently working for Syrian higher education institutions are PhD holders from Western countries.
Both parties claim to be winning the ideological and publications battle. The Eastern academics claim that the number of local Arabic published research documents is outstripping the international English published research, at least in Syria. The Western academics claim that the international English published research is of much higher quality than the research published locally in Arabic.
While the Eastern academics claim quantity and locality of publications as proof of their superiority, the Western academics cite quality and the international reach of their publications.
Any external observer to the academic scene in Syria would note that both parties are right. However, it is difficult for either side to agree any notional parity between the two trends – it must be left to an impartial body to decide who is the ‘true’ winner in the ideological battle over Syrian academic publishing.
Dr Rami M Ayoubi is senior advisor at Cardiff Metropolitan University, United Kingdom, and Dr Hiba K Massoud is senior lecturer at Coventry University, UK.