Digital degree transcripts ‘vital for refugee graduates’

Students from Syria and Sudan unable to progress because of lack of access to certificates

July 18, 2021
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Syrian researchers have proposed using a high-tech solution to solve a rather low-tech problem – a lack of verified student transcripts – in what they call “two of the most unstable low-income countries: Syria and Sudan”.

“There has been a large influx of students from low-income countries as refugees to Europe and other parts of the world. Many of them were without documents to prove their education level, while others lost them during their refugee trip,” according to a report to be published in the September issue of the International Journal of Educational Development. “Difficult and sometimes impossible access to academic records…has forced many students to start their study from scratch.”

Covid has exacerbated the situation, as many physical university offices are closed.

Sulaiman Mouselli, dean of the Faculty of Business Administration at Arab International University, and Ibrahim Alnafrah, an economics researcher at Damascus University, conducted feasibility tests on whether blockchain technology could be used to provide trustworthy and transferable academic records to the 890,000 students and new graduates in those countries. For the paper’s authors, the challenge was whether such a system could be implemented amid extreme financial and infrastructure challenges.

Professor Mouselli told Times Higher Education that finding a solution was “vital in situations of war and displacements where documents usually get lost or damaged”.

“All Syrian universities are still using paper documents, and students have to go through the long and costly process of certification” before they can move onto further study, employment or other countries, he said.

The lack of digitisation has caused larger issues for HE systems trying to internationalise and build global trust.

For example, forgery and fraud can become endemic amid “weak institutional frameworks and governance mechanisms, augmented with loose national standards”.

“One of the worst consequences of this situation…is the spread of fake certificates, which invokes international distrust,” the authors write. It “adversely affects the reputation of universities in low-income countries”.

Meanwhile, “students and academics alike face constrained mobilities due to concerns related to credentials and recognition”. And if they cannot seek further study or employment that matches their educational background, the problem becomes cyclical.

While the use of blockchain in HE has been discussed for years, “the majority of those studies concentrate on high- or medium-income countries”, the authors wrote. “Ironically, low-income countries, which suffer from weak institutional transparency and inefficient administrative structures”, need this technology “even more than developed countries”.

In more affluent countries, digital projects can developed by outside providers and designed for specific institutions. 

But in Syria and Sudan, the authors propose building national platforms that link students, universities, government and businesses. The expectation is not that they will “invent core technology”, but will adapt existing technology to suit their needs. 

To start, the platforms would be limited to tasks such as issuing and verifying documents. Students would be given public and private “keys” for accessing their documents anywhere in the world.

A poll of about 100 Syrian students showed that 73 per cent felt that document digitisation was necessary, and 64 per cent would be willing to pay $5 (£3.62) for this to happen.

The researchers estimated the annual cost of maintaining these systems at $278,000 in Syria and just over $1 million in Sudan, which works out to about $1.50 per student per year. That would be “affordable in comparison to the very expensive paper-based solution”, they argue. 

joyce.lau@timeshighereducation.com 

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