Internationalisation of higher education in Syria

After many years of conflict, Syrian higher education institutions continue to function. The most significant impact over the HE sector has been on the quality of the education provided, and on the capacity of Syrian HEIs to maintain stable relations with foreign universities around the world. Academic cooperation has suffered deeply due to the political instability, the collapse of infrastructures, and the isolation of the country.

Syrian HEIs used to be partners in European funded projects with Germany, Spain, France, Italy, and to have several collaborations with foreign universities. Recently, projects have been for the most part closed, and also the National Erasmus Office in Syria closed in 2017. Cooperation starts and moves up-to-date along bilateral agreements between universities, for staff exchanges, academic staff mobility, training and skills development. Moreover, due to the difficult relation with Europe, and the difficulties for students and staff to be granted a visa to enter European Member States, Syrian HEIs are recently looking elsewhere, pursuing collaborations with Russia, Iran, China, Indonesia.

Syrian universities have clearly expressed their will to restore academic cooperation and international relations with foreign universities, especially with European ones. Most universities (especially public universities) are equipping themselves with staff and offices dedicated to international relations. However, we must acknowledge that Syrian HEIs still do not have statements or written strategies for international relations, nor has an official roadmap for internationalisation on behalf of the Ministry of Higher Education been designed. Moreover, International Relations Offices seem to be competing with each other for internationalisation opportunities.

Syria has always been a preferred destination for foreign undergraduate and postgraduate students particularly for those who specialize in Arabic and Islamic studies. Today, mobility is a very small part of university life for Syrians. The international community takes responsibility of reintegrating Syrian refugees into higher education through scholarships from international donors such as UNESCO and programs (e.g, DAFI), and through a number of projects funded by the European Union such as HOPES. However, Syrian students, from inside Syria, have no access to such scholarships, and limited access to other opportunities. Mobility for Syrian students is financed with ICM funds of the European Commission and through scholarships financed by the university itself or the Ministry of HE and distributed along public universities. Due to the fact that studying abroad is not formally recognized, mobility is managed differently at private and public universities, and depends on the level of education. At the undergraduate level, mostly students of private universities, with a wealthy background, are likely to go on mobility and to come back to Syria. On the contrary, at public universities, almost only master and PhD students go on mobility: they do research abroad as part of their study programs or do a training period at a foreign university as part of their thesis design. These are usually students with English proficiency which are most likely seeking working opportunities abroad. Mobility for academic and administrative staff is instead pursued as a means for acquiring skills, language competences and exchange knowledge, within the framework of cooperation agreements. As a general reflection, very strong travel restrictions are imposed on Syrians, along with a very high risk of brain drain and migrations with no return; and many are unable to fund their learning journeys abroad.

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