The crisis in Syria is about to enter its sixth year. Of the 12 million Syrians displaced, half are children whose education has been put on hold or seriously disrupted. The impact of this will be felt in Syria and the region for generations to come.
The UK is one of the largest donors to the Syria crisis, having recently doubled its contribution. The British Council is part of the UK’s response, working directly with and in the refugee-hosting countries of Lebanon, Turkey, northern Iraq and Jordan since 2012. During this time, we have developed education programmes that take account of the complex and changing needs of people on the ground.
We are ensuring that more children and young people get access to quality education, in particular; to gain recognised qualifications to prepare them for the future, and to ensure that more women and girls are protected from violence and receive an education. It is an approach that reaches the broadest base of the educational “pyramid”, supporting vulnerable young people who are less easily catered for. These include those unable to finish school because of the conflict and those who need access to informal education and entrepreneurial skills.
Further up the educational system we are supporting those already working, often illegally, who need upskilling with technical or workplace skills, and high school graduates who need access to higher education; and here universities also have an important role to play. While scholarships are an important contribution for some, and demonstrate solidarity from the academic world, they are not the only, or necessarily the most effective, solution. Although many international donors are offering scholarships, there are difficulties in selecting students with the requisite language and academic skills, and in absolute terms the numbers remain low. The UK Higher Education International Unit estimates that more than £2 million in support has been made available by British institutions, but, in many cases, the places made available remain unfilled.
An alternative that we are advocating is for UK institutions to implement a broader approach in the region to reach the greatest number of Syrians through a combination of language, skills and other training. One initiative under way includes a partnership between the University of Bath and universities in Jordan to build the capacity of higher education institutions to respond to the refugee crisis. Well-informed and targeted initiatives such as this, delivered in the region with local partners, can be most impactful in making a lasting difference to the so-called “lost generation”.
To assist with this, the British Council is providing guidance and acting as a platform for UK institutions seeking to offer academic and institutional capacity-building to regional universities. We are also working to provide digital learning offers – including accredited degree programmes through distance learning, and working with individuals who do meet the academic requirements for UK scholarships, and linking them to UK scholarship programmes through collaboration with Universities UK and others large European Union agencies such as DAAD (the German Academic Exchange Service) and Nuffic (the Dutch equivalent) to help coordinate efforts across borders.
Education in fragile environments is not organised, mass produced or neat and tidy, but can support meaningful change, by helping to provide disadvantaged youth with knowledge and skills and hope. So by providing UK universities with the information, opportunities and support that they need to work in the Middle East and North Africa region, we are able to show that engagement in higher education in the region is possible and meaningful, despite the difficulty of the environment and the scale of the challenge.
The EU-funded and British Council-run Language, Academic Skills and E-Learning Resources Project (Laser) in Jordan and Lebanon is one such project. Through Laser, Syrian refugees and disadvantaged Jordanians can participate in an intensive, three-month language course, followed by the opportunity to enter online higher education to complete a three-year bachelor’s degree through the Open University.
As learning remotely is challenging, participants in the project are provided with support and mentoring. If they are unable to or do not wish to study for a degree or a diploma, learners have access to massive open online courses (Moocs) and short courses in Arabic and English to help them develop a range of academic and practical skills. Despite limited internet access, personal challenges and traumatic experiences being barriers to learning, research shows that the flexibility of online learning, together with the provision of personal support and encouragement, helps to increase the chances of students’ success.
Laser and many of the initiatives in the region are just beginning. Although working in such a challenging context is complex, there are indications that such activity will increase both in scale and funding, driving innovative approaches to education and increasing training in the region.
The British Council believes that alongside scholarships, a “basket” of diverse responses is required to meet the very wide range of academic and skills needs of Syrians and other displaced and traumatised youth. As the number of young people leaving school as refugees increases, these needs will become ever greater and a focus within the region will be the only way to meet them.
Rebecca Hughes is head of education, and Adrian Chadwick is regional director, Middle East at the British Council.