A new preliminary report on the situation facing Syrian refugee students and scholars, based on fieldwork in Jordan, finds that displaced students are deterred from entering Jordanian universities by higher tuition, fees, and living costs that put the country’s universities “out of reach for all but a small elite of Syrian refugee students,” as well as by a lack of official travel documents or academic transcripts. Syrian academics also find few opportunities in Jordan’s universities. Recommendations outlined in the report include the mobilization of international donors in support of a consortium of Jordanian universities committed to educating Syrian students, the development of a program to support Syrian students continuing their studies in other Arab countries, and the creation of short-term research fellowships for scholars in Jordan and the greater region. (This would be in addition to scholarships and visiting academic appointments offered to Syrian students and scholars through organizations like the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund and the IIE Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis. Many American and European universities have committed to provide funding to host Syrian scholars or students since the launch of the consortium last fall.)
“International higher education writ large, needs to begin to imagine regional solutions to the displacement of students and at-risk university professionals,” said Keith David Watenpaugh, a historian of the Modern Middle East and associate professor who directs the University of California, Davis Human Rights Initiative, which joined with the Scholar Rescue Fund to produce the report. Watenpaugh noted that while there is interest on the part of Jordan’s private universities in accepting Syrian students, capacity is limited: even if each took in 300 to 400 students that would only add up to about 5,000 at most – “and the need is much greater than that.” Whereas there is capacity – and lower living costs – in Egypt, as well as interest on the part of its government: “I think that the Egyptian government is very interested in reaching out to Syrian students as part of Egypt’s desire to assert a regional leadership role," Watenpaugh said.
The report also offers historical context regarding Syria’s higher education system, and an overview of the scale of the destruction since the beginning of the conflict between government and rebel forces in March 2011. The report documents that while universities remain open, safety conditions have deteriorated rapidly: “During our interviews, it became apparent that asking if a university remains open is the wrong question; rather the more important question is: can students come and go safely from the university?” the report states. Large numbers of faculty and students have been internally and externally displaced, and students and faculty are unable to safely pass through security checkpoints in order to get to campus. Estimates are that attendance rates at universities are around 30 percent.
“It's a slowly collapsing system, and it’s collapsing alongside the collapse of other institutions in Syria,” Watenpaugh said.