Stigma over higher education options ‘holds Syrian refugees back’

Session on how best to support refugees from Syria and elsewhere hears evidence that more vocational options are needed

May 3, 2018
Young boy leads caravan of Syrian refugees
Source: iStock

A “cultural stigma” against technical and vocational higher education is damaging the chances of young Syrian refugees making a successful life for themselves after fleeing the country’s civil war, a conference has heard.

Allison Church, the regional director for the Middle East at Kiron Open Higher Education, an organisation trying to help refugees access courses online, told the British Council’s Going Global summit that the major problem facing Syrians displaced to countries such as Jordan and Lebanon was their low secondary school completion rate.

However, Ms Church told the event in Kuala Lumpur, she believed that many more would stay in education and then go on to access university courses if there were realistic course options available that would lead to a job.

“There is a cultural stigma surrounding certain kinds of education and certain employability,” she said, explaining that it was a problem that was common in the region and not just among Syrian refugees.

“Engineering and medicine are obviously the two highest coveted fields for students who are Syrian…It doesn’t matter that there is no employment possibility – they still want to study [these subjects].”

She said that her own experience for Kiron in the region matched research findings presented during the same session by Mohamad Saad, head of the department of psychology at the British University in Egypt, who has conducted a study for the British Council and the United Nations’ refugee agency on Syrian refugees’ access to higher education.

He also pointed to “discrimination” in the region between courses and modes of learning seen as prestigious, like campus-based medical degrees, and against other subjects and ways of studying.

Ms Church said that potential jobs for graduate refugees in Lebanon and Jordan were primarily in fields such as agriculture, construction and textiles, but there were few or no university courses in such areas.

“There is a great need to integrate these higher education options into the field. I think personally if these options were offered” many more refugees would remain in education, which would help them to get jobs and also enable them to one day “return to Syria with skills that can help develop the country”, she said.

Ms Church also noted that, although university campuses in Jordan and Lebanon were overloaded and unable to accept more refugees, there was a reluctance to turn to online and blended learning to solve the problem.

And institutions were also still charging refugees the same tuition fees as international students, although this was in part an effort to address the capacity issue by increasing funding.

Meanwhile, the session also heard early findings from another British Council research project into refugee education that has looked at attitudes in different countries towards technical and vocational education and training (TVET).

Paul Grainger, from the UCL Institute of Education, said that, although governments were aware of the importance of tertiary-level TVET in helping refugees to get jobs, there were still barriers to creating sufficient provision.

He said that his research, which like that of Dr Saad is due out later this year, had pointed to a “slight disparity between what governments say happens and what our evidence indicates is actually happening on the ground”.

“The most important point of all [to come from the research] is that TVET leads to competence, leads to employment, leads to wealth and, therefore, to the benefit of the host community,” Mr Grainger added.

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