How Hard Is It to Be a University Student in Rebel-Held Syria?

Ramia did not rejoice when universities were inaugurated, because she would not put effort into obtaining a degree only to have this effort gone down the drain, with no official recognition of any of the degrees offered by public universities in Idlib.

16 October 2017

Lama Rageh

Lama Rageh holds a BA in Journalism and Media from Damascus University, and an MA in Media from Beirut Arab University. She works as a freelancer for several outlets, in addition to being a human rights activist with a particular interest in gender issues.

Translated by: Yaaser Azzayyaat

Since many regions and governorates fell out of Syrian regime control, an ongoing debate has raged over the possibility of maintaining state institutions. In particular, higher education has faced numerous financial and political challenges weighing on both students and faculty members.

In early 2015, the Idlib civil administration, which is currently controlled by Islamist hardliners from Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), inaugurated the University of Idlib (UI).

Meanwhile, the opposition’s Interim Government inaugurated the Free Aleppo University (FAU)  in December 2015, with several campuses distributed across the northern and western countryside of Aleppo, as well as Homs, Eastern Ghuta, Quneitra and Daraa.

Functioning under the administrative and military entities that have replaced regime institutions in their areas, both Idlib and Aleppo Universities are considered “public. ”Furthermore, several private universities are located in opposition-controlled Northern Syria, including Mari University, Ebla University, Syrian Oxford University, and Sham International University, while the Massar Academy and the Islamic Daawah School provide education for the students of Eastern Ghuta.

Financial Restraints

“If poverty were a man, I would have killed him,” said Safa (21), referencing a famous quote by Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib. The local of Maarrat An-Nu‘man had briefly lived in Aleppo as a first-year student at the Faculty of Biology. However, the security situation forced Safa to leave her university in 2014, and to wait for the war to resolve, or for her to find another way out.

When UI and FAU opened their doors, Safa hoped that she may resume her studies, but her admission was impeded for economic reasons, as her family could not afford the tuition of either university. “In my town there are dozens of students who are sick of paying such tuition fees and consider them beyond their capacity, especially under rampant unemployment, inflation, and the depreciation of the Syrian Pound. As for private universities, I have never even considered going and inquiring about enrollment, because I know beforehand that I can never afford their tuitions.”

Nonetheless, there is no comparison between public and private universities, as the latter’s fees exceed $1,000 per year, while the fees of both public universities range between $100-200, depending on discipline. Indeed, rarely can Syrian students in these areas enroll in private universities.

“Usually, students from well-off families do enroll in private universities,” marked Dr. Suaad[i] (35), who holds a faculty position at FAU. “This particularly happens when a student’s academic attainment does not qualify for a public university, or when they wish to obtain the academic accreditation, as many of these private universities claim their degrees are accredited.”

[Photo: Students sit in a class at Free Aleppo University – 20-3-2016 (Free Aleppo University Facebook page/Fair use. All rights reserved to the author)].

A widow with three children , Rima

[ii] (30) lives in Kafr Batna in the Eastern Ghuta enclave. After graduating from high school with a grade of 180/240, she enrolled in the Institute of Math at FAU rather than a faculty. While FAU faculties would cost her between $100-200 a year, the average fee of a vocational training center is around $50 per year. “I opted to enroll at the Institute, which would allow me to save money and spend it on my kids, especially since I have no breadwinner to help me with the costs of a faculty tuitions, all under suffocating siege,” she said.

The issue of university tuitions has become an obsession not only for the students themselves, as Suaad explained, but also for some faculty members. She added: “I have received several complaints from students who intend to withdraw from FAU on the grounds of their inability to pay tuition fees, which prompted me to submit a proposal suggesting a special fund to support students in need. It would prevent them from withdrawing due to financial conditions.”

On the other hand, universities in rebel-held areas also suffer from financial conditions. Unable to cover their operating costs, they opt to impose higher tuition fees on students, and try at the same time to lessen their financial burden in consideration of tough circumstances and limited resources.

The Minister of Higher Education in the Interim Government, Dr. Abdul-Aziz Al-Dughaim, confirmed to SyriaUntold that there is not enough support to cover all the operational costs of FAU. “Last year, the Syrian NGO Education Without Borders – Midad covered around 56-70% of these costs, while the Dutch Spark covered the costs of Daraa’s Faculty of Agricultural Engineering and that of Nursing. This year, a coordination with the Syrian American Medical Society Foundation (SAMS) led to covering the costs of medical institutes and faculties, with the university having to secure the remaining expenses,” said Al-Dughaim. Additionally, the FAU adopts a special accommodation for some of its students, cutting its tuition fees to half for those living in besieged areas.

The absence of the regime, however, has deprived these universities of both allocations of public funds and official academic accreditation.

The same is true for IU, which also suffers from a lack of resources and relies on self-financing in order to cover its expenses. It also has special accommodations for some cases. The head of IU’s Public Relations Office, Issam Al-Khalif, told SyriaUntold that the university “applies a discount system, so if two brothers enroll, for example, they have a 30% discount, and 40% if they are three brothers and 50% if four or above. Also, students with special needs are completely exempted from tuition fees.”

[Photo: Students attend a course at the University of Idlib – 13-9-2017 (University of Idlib Facebook page/Fair use. All rights reserved to the author)].

In addition to high costs, students and faculty members suffer from other challenges that hinder the course of education, added the Dean of the Faculty of Law at FAU, Dr. Ismail Al-Khalfan. “We face difficulties in securing scientific references and university textbooks for most departments, not to mention properly equipping the laboratories of science faculties. We also don’t have designated housing for students, which especially impacts students in scientific departments that require daily attendance. Furthermore, there is a shortage of qualified instructors, because most have migrated outside the country.”

Lack of International Recognition

Ramia Mohammed (20), a local of Saraqeb, in Idlib countryside, used to attend the official Aleppo University, where she read math, before she was forced to leave due to deteriorating security conditions. She was subsequently prevented from returning to Aleppo.

However, Ramia did not rejoice when universities were inaugurated, she recalled, because she would not put effort into obtaining a degree only to have this effort gone down the drain, with no official recognition of any of the degrees offered by public universities in Idlib.

Idlib today is “hanging in the balance,” as Ramia put it, wondering about the future of her province with different state powers competing over it. Nobody knows what will become of education in the future, but universities have failed even in obtaining formally accredited degrees.

Despite that, public universities have been positively received by some students, including Rima, the widow, who is determined to complete her education despite the lack of accreditation. Her work in Eastern Ghuta requires a scientific degree, which does not have to be internationally accredited. She would suffice with earning a living and spending on her children. Rima also believes in seeking knowledge for the purpose of educating them.

Today, universities in rebel-held areas are seeking to obtain formal recognition of their degrees, despite the fact that this remains, in one way or another, conditional to the political recognition of Syrian opposition bodies. Dr. Al-Dughaim asserts that efforts are underway to obtain this recognition, stressing that opposition public universities adhere to academic standards and offer the same scientific methods and curricula offered in the regime universities, with the exception of certain courses such as [mandatory Baathist] Nationalism (qawmiyyah). They have also resorted to the staff who had previously worked in regime universities, in addition to specialists entrusted with developing well-formulated educational plans.

“We had a recent coordination meeting with the Turkish Higher Education Council in the Turkish capital, with the aim of working towards the recognition of documents issued by the FAU. We have submitted a report on the work of the university and its efforts, in hope that its degrees be accredited, which would open the prospect of recognition by Turkish universities,” affirmed the minister.

Meanwhile, in August 2017, the IU has declared – at least formally – its autonomy from any military and political administration, as well as the HTS-controlled civil administration, in order to obtain official recognition and financial support, as confirmed by the university’s Deputy President for Administrative Affairs, Dr. Firas Allush. “IU declared its autonomy […] in an attempt to overcome some of its hurdles, especially the non-recognition of the degrees on the grounds that it is controlled by militant factions.”

However, media evidence of IU’s ties to militant factions was available even before the HTS takeover of the city of Idlib in July 2017. This was encapsulated in the recent conflict between UI and FAU, which prompted the administration of the former to seek HTS’ support when FAU issued its own academic requirements in September 2017. Members of HTS then took over the presidency of the FAU in the town of Dana, in rural Idlib, preventing the entry of staff.

In addition to the above, other challenges that hinder the educational process include continuous aerial bombardment and recurrent infighting between military factions, both in the south and the north of the country, which often results in the closure of roads leading to universities.

The Role of Civil Society in Supporting Education

Many NGOs have strived to support education in Syria, but it seems that their support is still meagre and utterly unsatisfying, and students continue to face unaffordable fees. In opposition-controlled areas, several NGOs have placed special focus on the education of women, who have been doubly burdened by both the domination of hardline Islamist factions and the continuous communal persecution, and who have nonetheless accessed the public sphere as a result of the revolution, financial pressures and the shift in gender roles.

Women Now for Development is a local NGO that supports Syrian women. It has five centers in Syria, three in Eastern Ghuta and two in Idlib, and they all invest in women empowerment.

Women Now provides training for women and girls on a number of subjects that help build their professional and educational capabilities. The director of the Women Now center in Maarat an-Nu‘man, Muzna Al-Jundi, emphasized that the leadership program,  currently fulfills the requirements of employment that organizations and institutions usually have, and follows scientific and academic training methods.

[Photo: A group of women attend a Women Now training program for professional empowerment in Hazza, Eastern Ghuta (courtesy of Women Now)].

Al-Jundi noted that women often resort to Women Now centers for the purpose of learning, rather than to universities. She attributed that to the unaffordability of university tuitions, and the difficulty of movement under current security conditions, in addition to the concern for the lack of formal recognition. “We usually advise women to resume their education at universities,” she said, “but when a woman refuses or is unable to attend one, we guide her to trainings in areas that match her potentials, needs and aspirations, which would alternatively help build her competence and allow her to find jobs within NGOs and other institutions.”

Given the tuition fees and the lack of formal recognition, it is hardly surprising that many prefer training to education. This will likely continue to be the case as long as efforts and pressure are not concerted to obtain formal international accreditation, as well as to secure sufficient financial support to reduce university fees.

[Main photo: Anti-regime demonstrators gather at the gate of Aleppo University – 17-5-2012 (Aleppo Media Center/Fair use. All rights reserved to the author)].

[i] A pseudonym was used for security reasons.

[ii] Pseudonym.

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