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Promoting access to quality, safe, and relevant education for all persons affected by crisis

Syrian access to higher education in Turkey

9 November 2014

by James R. King, Senior Research & Program Officer at the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund

The conflict in Syria and ensuing humanitarian crisis has dominated global headlines since 2011. The numbers are staggering. 200,000 people killed. Half of Syria’s pre-war population displaced, more than 3 million as refugees and 7 million internally.

But why has this acute humanitarian crisis also created a higher education emergency?

To answer this question, it is important to recognize that Syria boasted a robust, well-funded, and largely accessible higher education system. Prior to the eruption of conflict, approximately a quarter of Syrian young people (including young women) benefitted from some form of post-secondary education or training. War, however, has decimated the university system, and amongst the Syrian refugees, there are tens of thousands of academics and university students who have been cut off from higher education indefinitely.

Istanbul, where more than one third of the total number of Syrians
enrolled at Turkish universities are studying. (Photo: J. King)

With the conflict showing no sign of ending and these refugees and displaced Syrians unable to return home, a massive higher education crisis looms for a generation of Syrians, with potentially devastating results for the future of Syria and the Middle East region. Yet the international community has operated under earlier paradigms of who a victim of war or refugee is and what they need, largely neglecting higher education as part of the broader humanitarian response.

A new report by the Institute of International Education (IIE) and its Syria Consortium for Higher Education in Crisis examines the conditions and educational needs of Syrian university students and scholars in Turkey in particular. “We Will Stop Here and Go No Further: Syrian University Students and Scholars in Turkey” is based on first-hand interviews that my colleagues from the University of California, Davis and I conducted with Syrian refugees whose academic work or university studies have been interrupted due to the conflict. We also interviewed Turkish policymakers and university administrators and the leadership of various Syrian-led and international educational initiatives.

The report examines why so few Syrians are continuing their university studies in Turkey – as few as 2% of the university-age population (that is, 18-22 year-olds) during the 2013-14 academic year, including less than 1% of the university-age women. It also analyzes the Turkish government’s policy towards Syrians in the realm of higher education and provides policy and programmatic recommendations for increasing their access, including describing the opportunities and challenges for international stakeholders to support their Syrian colleagues.

Perhaps surprisingly, we discovered several reasons for optimism. Not only did Syrian enrollment increase by 300% from the 2012-13 academic year, but the Government of Turkey has developed a humane and forward-thinking policy on this issue that holds the potential to improve Syrian access to the country’s higher education system.

The report’s title refers to two possibilities for the future of these refugees. We conclude that a significant number of Syrians will remain in Turkey even after the war in Syria subsides, as many feel that Turkey offers an environment to rebuild their lives. We warn, however, that “the challenges of displacement risk marginalizing these young people, leaving their potential unfulfilled.” The consequences would be devastating: “If successive age-cadres of Syrians are unable to continue their education, Syria will lose its future doctors, teachers, engineers, and university professionals. Further, if circumstances require them to remain in Turkey, the prolonged or permanent disruption of their education will hinder their ability to integrate and function in Turkish society; if they move to other parts of the world, it could impede their transition to these new societies.”

This report is the third phase of a regional study produced by IIE and the UC Davis that is supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Earlier reports looked at the situations in Lebanon (“The War Follows Them: Syrian University Students & Scholars in Lebanon”) and Jordan (“Uncounted and Unacknowledged: Syria’s University Students & Academics in Jordan”).

Download the report here.

For questions or feedback, please contact [email protected].

James R. King (at left in photo) is Senior Research & Program Officer at IIE’s Scholar Rescue Fund, a fellowship program to support academics facing threats to their lives and careers. A former Fulbright Fellow in Jordan, King holds a Master’s degree in Islamic Studies from Columbia University and has published original research on Yemen's Zaydi community. He is the co-author on two reports published by IIE and the University of California, Davis that focus on the impact of the Syrian refugee crisis on higher education: “We Will Stop Here and Go No Further: Syrian University Students and Scholars in Turkey” and “The War Follows Them: Syrian University Students and Scholars in Lebanon." (Photo: A. Fricke)