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HE opportunities limited, weak, say Syrian refugees

Despite the efforts of governments and higher education institutions in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis, higher education opportunities are still limited and often inadequate, according to a study of Syrian youth in the three countries.

Kathleen Fincham on British Council Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey higher education report at Going Global 2017“Sometimes, when you ask a question, you get an answer you don’t want to hear,” the report's author, Kathleen Fincham, said at Going Global this week. Photo: The PIE News.

“Even when education is available and accessible, it might not be acceptable”

A series of focus groups for the study, commissioned by the British Council, revealed that young Syrian refugees “generally felt that scholarship provision for refugees was inadequate, both in terms of quality and quantity” in the three countries.

Students felt the supply of scholarships was insufficient, while those that were available were generally not available for in-demand subject areas, such as medicine. As a result, many refugee youth ended up studying subjects not related to their previous study, or those for which they had “little aptitude or interest”.

“There as a belief that the scholarships offered to Syrian refugees were ‘leftover’ spaces”

“There was a belief that the scholarships offered to Syrian refugees were ‘leftover’ spaces at institutions after paying national students had had their first pick of majors,” the report observes.

The funding that was available was not always sufficient to support a full course of study, it adds. Scholarships frequently covered tuition but not living costs, for example, and many only covered the first year of study.

And because funding only supported study at particular institutions, students often faced long commutes of up to two hours each way.

This was especially problematic in some areas; refugee youth in Lebanon said they had to navigate numerous government and paramilitary checkpoints en route to university, and failure to carry the correct documentation could result in their detention or deportation.

Presenting the findings of her research at the British Council’s Going Global conference yesterday in London, the report’s author, Kathleen Fincham, observed that “even when education is available and accessible, it might not be acceptable”.

Cultural and community-based factors can also create barriers to accessing education, the report notes. A student’s decision to pursue higher education must usually be approved by their family, while married women must seek the approval of their husbands.

Female students also said transportation to and from campus was problematic, as they felt exposed to a risk of sexual harassment. A lack of access to childcare also had a disproportionately adverse impact on women, the study notes.

Meanwhile, male youth described feeling pressure to support their family financially. This often resulted in them taking illegal and poorly-paid jobs, detracting from study time, which was doubly problematic for those on scholarships that were dependent on academic performance.

On the institutional side, the language of instruction, difficulty obtaining refugees’ documentation, and institutional practices such as rigidly enforcing enrolment dates, all made accessing education more difficult for Syrian youth.

Online education was the least favoured option among the study participants, after university and vocational training.

One reason was that students were concerned about the accreditation of online courses, which they felt were appropriate for certificates but not degree-level qualifications.

Another was that many students did not fully understand what online learning was. Many assumed professors would be less competent than on campus, or that classes would not be interactive.

This finding indicated that universities have some work to do to educate refugees about the positives of online learning, noted Fincham. However, she cautioned that some examples given by the participants indicated “poor pedagogical practice” – some who had taken online courses said there had been little interactivity, for example.

“Sometimes, when you ask a question, you get an answer you don’t want to hear,” she said.

Practical concerns like poor internet access and electricity sources, as well as students’ own weak computer skills, compounded students’ negative perception of online education.

Students did, however, acknowledge that the flexible nature of online learning could be beneficial for marginalised groups such as women in the home, people working full time and those who are less mobile.

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