Higher education for Syrian refugees – yet another humanitarian concern?

Author: Leon Cremonini

University of Damascus

Damage to the University of Damascus in 2013

While here in The Netherlands many of the Kingdom’s students were panic-struck as grants were converted into loans, for most Syrian students just some 2,000 miles away tertiary education is becoming all but a dream.

With free access and gross enrolment rates of 25% and growing (Syrian Central Bureau of Statistics; UNESCO 2014), Syria has traditionally been considered the model nation in the region. But as the conflict gives no sign of abating, participation rates are falling sharply. According to Al-Fanner, a venture philanthropy organization working in the Arab world, over 100,000 students in Syria aged 18-24 had dropped out by early 2015, “which could well be minimizing the problem” (Abdo 2015). Participation rates among Syrian refugees living abroad is even lower. In 2014 for example fewer than 2% of Syrian refugees aged 18-24 in Turkey were in higher education (Institute for International Education 2014a); in Lebanon the number was 6%, according to information provided by the Lebanese Ministry of Education and Higher Education.

However, as the country grapples with a humanitarian catastrophe reminiscent of bygone eras, many question whether the international community should care about supporting access to higher education for young Syrians under such circumstances. It is argued that surely in an emergency situation where half the population is in dire need of help (according to UNHCR), aid should provide food, sanitation and basic education. These contentions are grounded in a long-established distinction between humanitarian interventions (intended to generate immediate relief for people in disaster zones) and development programmes (meant to produce sustainable socioeconomic and political progress in emerging economies).

As reasonable as these arguments might seem, we would be seriously misguided if we kept turning a blind eye to the higher education predicament in Syria. Rebuilding post-conflict Syria and the stability of the Middle East and North Africa regions depend on fostering the human and intellectual capital of today’s youth – i.e. tomorrow’s teachers, doctors, engineers, etc. As noted in some of the Institute for International Education’s seminal research on the topic, supporting access to postsecondary education for Syrians is critical to prevent undesirable outcomes such as radicalization (Institute for International Education 2014a and 2014b). These have a clear and visible impact on our own societies .

But can higher education really be the object of an emergency response? How can it be ensured that it has its place in emergency response without prejudice to the other needs refugees face?

When it comes to higher education, I believe we should go beyond a binary approach to assistance as either humanitarian relief or development work (Lorisika, Cremonini and Safar Jalani 2015). Conflict situations may last longer than a degree programme (think about it – Syrians who terminated their secondary education at the war’s inception could be finalizing their Master’s this year).

Promoting access to higher education in emergencies should be an integral element of humanitarian assistance, as was correctly emphasized by Arnaud Borchard, the head of the development section of the European Union delegation to Syria (Faek 2015). But in addition, higher education produces innovation, entrepreneurial skills and community development, which are necessary for ensuring stability during times of reconstruction and long-term sustainable development. Therefore in emergencies, higher education requires both the urgency of humanitarian relief through direct interventions yielding immediate visible effects (e.g. such as ad hoc facilities to cater for those living in camps) and the longer-term approaches and policy reform that accompany effective development.

The field is still emergent, the questions still too often evaded; but if we keep just looking where the light is brighter we do so at our own peril, especially in the wake of increasing radicalization. An all-encompassing strategy is more than just providing selective scholarships for Syria’s smartest (Lorisika, Cremonini and Safar Jalani 2015). It should address the regional needs, help institutional development, and support both programmatic and level differentiation (for example by encouraging the establishment of, and participating in, short degrees) to promote relevant studies for reconstruction.


Abdo, W. (2015). To Be Syrian and a Professor: Recipe for Tragedy. Al-Fanar Media At: http://www.al-fanarmedia.org/2015/02/syrian-professor-recipe-tragedy/

Faek, R. (2015). In Brussels, an Emergency Call for Higher Education. Al-Fanar Media. At: http://www.al-fanarmedia.org/2015/01/brussels-emergency-call-higher-education/

Institute for International Education (2014a). We will Stop Here and Go No Further. Syrian University Students and Scholars in Turkey. Institute of International Education. At: 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

Institute for International Education (2014b). The War Follows Them. Syrian University Students and Scholars in Lebanon. Institute of International Education. At: http://www.iie.org/Research-and-Publications/Publications-and-Reports/IIE-Bookstore/The-War-Follows-Them-Syrian-University-Students-And-Scholars-In-Lebanon

Lorisika, I., Cremonini, L., and Safar Jalani, M. (2015). Study to Design a Programme/ Clearinghouse Providing Access to Higher Education for Syrian Refugees and Internal Displaced Persons. Final Report. Brussels/Damascus: European Union Delegation to the Syrian Arab Republic. At: http://www.utwente.nl/bms/cheps/news/finalreportstudyhighereducationsyrianrefugeesandidp.pdf

Syrian Central Bureau of Statistics: http://www.cbssyr.sy/

UNESCO (2014). Higher Education Access and Degrees for Youth Affected by the Syria Crisis (HEDYS): Addressing Needs and Providing Effective Guidance

About the author

Leon picture 2Leon Cermonini has been a researcher at CHEPS since 2006. He graduated in Political Science from the University of Bologna, Italy, in 2000 and has since worked both in Europe and in the United States. His interests concentrate on quality assessment at the institutional and programme level, the internationalisation of higher education, selection and access, and on the study of university and programme rankings. Recently Leon has been involved in research on higher education in emergencies, specifically looking at the consequences of the Syrian crisis on higher education access. He is involved in a number of international projects in Africa, the Middle East and South-East Asia.


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