What the Syrian crisis means for education, everywhere

What are the consequences of contemporary conflicts for education? Education systems, at all levels, take generations to build, with key investments in infrastructure and – particularly in people. Universities develop their capacity for professional training and research over many years before they can function as anchor institutions for their communities. Any sustained or intense conflict can destroy these accumulated benefits within a few months.

Syria is now enduring the worst humanitarian crisis in more than fifty years. A recent study by the Institute of International Education has looked in detail at the circumstances of Syrian students and academics in exile in Turkey, proposing interventions that could address the devastating damage to Syria’s Higher Education system and build resources for the eventual process of national reconstruction that will follow from the end of the current war.

At the time that Syria’s civil war began in 2011, the country had a population of about 23 million people and about a quarter of school leavers continued into post-compulsory education. The United Nations estimates that, by the end of last year, 3.8 million Syrians had fled the country and a further 7.6 million people have been internally displaced as a direct result of violence – about half of the pre-war population. Of those remaining in Syria, more than 12 million are in need of humanitarian assistance.

Turkey is currently hosting about a million Syrian refugees; exact numbers are unknown because, in addition to official refugee camps, significant numbers of people escaping the war live in the sprawling metropolitan regions of Istanbul and Ankara. Of these, the International Institute for Education estimates that between 20000 and 30000 are either potential Higher Education students, or are students who have previously been enrolled in Syrian universities but have had to abandon their studies. There are also unknown numbers of Syrian university staff in exile in Turkey, surviving by any means possible to them. In addition, there are large Syrian refugee communities in Jordan and Lebanon as well as a global diaspora that includes many academics and students.

The IIE’s work in Turkey begins to show how Syria’s future needs can be anticipated by supporting students in exile. This starts with understanding the challenges faced by the host country. While Turkey’s Higher Education system has expanded significantly over the past decade, and the overall participation rate has risen from about 15% in 2002 to close to 40% in 2012, there is significant unmet demand by Turkish nationals for university places. Turkey has welcomed Syrian enrolments in its universities, but this has been at very low levels to date; the IIE estimates that just 2% of eligible young refugees have gained access in their host country. Clearly, Turkey’s ability to absorb the pressing educational needs of its unanticipated refugee communities is constrained.

In addition, and in common with refugee communities in other parts of the world, Syrians face particular challenges when seeking out educational opportunities. This is not because of prejudice or animosity; the IIE study found that, overall, Syrians can integrate into Turkish society, particularly in those regions where there are deep historical ties between the two countries. The main barrier is language; teaching and administration in universities is in Turkish or English, rather than in Syrian’s native Arabic. Again, this is a factor that would restrict any significant increase in access to education by refugee communities.

The key finding of the IIE study is that meaningful responses to education provision in the face of humanitarian crises of this proportion must be international, and that international responses will be an investment against the eventual reconstruction of a stable social and economic structure in Syria. Put another way, the failure to provide for the marginalization and educational disenfranchisement of large numbers of young adult exiles is to risk creating large reservoirs of alienation and anger – fertile ground for the advocacy of violent responses to violence.

The Institute’s research team also found that, faced with these extraordinary difficulties, young Syrians in exile in Turkey are developing their own responses. In both large metropolitan centres such as Istanbul and in smaller towns and cities close to the border, refugee students are coming together for mutual support. In Istanbul, Syrian neighborhoods have begun to form and social and cultural centres have been established. In areas in Turkey’s south, which have strong historical ties with Syria, exiled university students have set up significant and supportive networks with the assistance of NGOs. There are clear opportunities for imaginative and contemporary education solutions using new digital media to provide access to academic programmes that are offered and supported internationally.

“Improving the access of Syrians to post-secondary education can contribute to regional security and stability by providing alternatives to a range of undesirable outcomes, including crime, radicalization, or fighting for young men, and early or forced marriage for young women. In addition, the human and intellectual capital these young people represent has tremendous potential to increase social stability in postconflict Syria, as well as in Turkey and the greater region. Syria is now categorized as a ‘low human development’ state because of the collapse of its economy, health, and education sectors. The failure to connect Syrian students to higher education and other training opportunities will only accelerate this decline and leave Syrian society without experts trained in fields of study critical to post-conflict recovery. This is also the outcome when Syrian professors and researchers are left without access to the research facilities and other resources that would allow them to collaborate with Turkish and international colleagues to conduct research relevant to Syria’s recovery and reconstruction”.

This conclusion by the International Institute for Education could apply to many other current and post-conflict situations. Transnational Education, with international student mobility, is now an international industry, and a significant part of the GDP of those nations that have invested significantly in its provision. But at the same time the implications of sustained regional conflicts and the displacement of millions of people are also international issues with significant educational dimensions. Studies such as the IIE’s work in Syria and Turkey begin the show how appropriate and meaningful solutions could be developed and implemented.


United Nations 2015.”Syria”. United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.     http://www.unocha.org/syria

Keith David Watenpaugh, Adrienne L. Fricke, James R. King, “’We Will Stop Here and Go No Further’. Syrian University Students and Scholars in Turkey”. International Institute of Education, University of California Davis. October 2014. http://www.iie.org/Research-and-Publications/Publications-and-Reports/IIE-Bookstore/We-Will-Stop-Here-And-Go-No-Further-Syrian-University-Students-And-Scholars-In-Turkey




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