Universities of north Syria: Future hindered by crises
Enab Baladi‘sInvestigation Team
Nour Abdel Nour | Haba Shahadeh
In empty schools, former government offices and some university amphitheaters, the higher education process in opposition-held areas in northern Syria has emerged as an internal sector that has remained since the beginning away from international support and attention.
Amid the need for educational entities parallel to the universities run by the Ministry of Higher Education in the regime’s government, academic universities in opposition-held areas have taken their first steps in northern Syria in 2015 to meet the needs of students who had dropped out of education since the outbreak of the revolution in 2011.
With the enrollment of students in the first higher education institutions (Free Aleppo University and Idlib University), new private-owned universities have quickly spread, providing a suitable place for some Syrian students to support the continuation of their tuition.
Like other sectors in the opposition-held areas, higher education has been largely influenced by the political reality and balances of local military forces on the ground. Two governments are currently competing in this sector, whose institutions’ positions are changing according to the dominant force.
Enab Baladi will highlight in this file the reality of higher education institutions and monitor the biggest problems from which this sector is suffering and the extent to which students are satisfied with the educational process in these institutions, as indicators that support the possibility of continuity of their work. Enab Baladi will also try to foresee the future of these universities in the post-war phase in Syria.
Universities of north Syria
Subjective and objective crises shaping the future
Free Aleppo University and Idlib University are the two most important educational entities in the north of Syria, in terms of the available scientific branches, the number of students and their teaching and administrative staff.
Free Aleppo University is run by the Ministry of Higher Education in the Syrian Interim Government, while the University of Idlib is linked to the Higher Education Council affiliated to the Syrian Salvation Government, which has, in turn, forced private universities in the region to be affiliated with it and obtain its permits.
Thus, the opposition’s two interim and salvation governments share the higher education sector in the north of Syria and assume its responsibility, amid absence of international support for higher education in the opposition-held areas at the expense of supporting basic and secondary education.
The higher education sector suffers from several problems, the nature of which varies between Free Aleppo University, Idlib University, and private universities in the region. These problems play a key role in foreseeing the future of the educational process in the region in the short term, and in the event of ending the Syrian conflict and reaching a political solution.
Free Aleppo University: Administrative, logistical, and scientific crises
At the beginning of its establishment in 2015, the headquarters of Free Aleppo University branches and faculties have been divided between the countryside of Idlib and the northern and western countryside of Aleppo. After the control of the Salvation Government, affiliated to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, over Idlib and parts of the western countryside of Aleppo in 2017, and this government’s start of pressuring Interim Government institutions, Free Aleppo University has found itself facing two options, either to be affiliated to the Higher Education Council associated with the Salvation Government, or to relocate its headquarters.
As a result, the Free Aleppo University has started in March moving its headquarters from the cities and towns controlled by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham to the cities of Azaz and Marea in the northern countryside of Aleppo, resulting in several logistical, administrative, and educational crises.
Dr. Mazen al-Saud, a professor at the Faculty of Medicine at Free Aleppo University, pointed out that there are several crises facing the university related to the relocation of its headquarters, most notably related to financial and transportation aspects. A large number of transferred students are forced to travel between their towns and villages in the countryside of Idlib to the University’s new headquarters, resulting in large financial burdens.
“There are difficulties in terms of logistics and accommodation of students,” pointed out al-Saud, explaining, “We left our labs in our universities at the Faculty of Medicine and moved to small laboratories in Marea. There is a shortage and we seek to make it up.”
He also pointed out that there are administrative crises, stressing that “the chairmanship of the university is not interacting with the event as it should, and the Education Council in the university is not paying much effort in overcoming the difficulties the university is facing.
While the Minister of Higher Education at the Interim Government, Abdul Aziz al-Daghim, stressed the existence of logistical problems at the Free Aleppo University, he denied these problems’ impact on the administrative aspect. “The Free Aleppo University has been subjected to major shocks by taking over its faculties and institutes in Atarib and Kafr Takharim. However, things have improved at the administrative level, since the faculties have been collected in the city of Azaz, except the Faculty of Medicine and the Faculty of Pharmacy in the city of Marea, making the administration more vital and linked to the student, employee and educational staff member.
At the scientific level, al-Daghim pointed out that there is a sharp shortage in the educational staff, as “we have not been able to hire educational staff members in the faculties of civil engineering, architecture and computing, and we have a huge shortage in the faculties of human medicine, pharmacy, and dentistry, in addition to a shortage in faculties of English and Arabic languages.”
Higher Education Council: Authoritarian or regulatory role
The Higher Education Council was formed in 2017 under an agreement between several universities, most notably the University of Idlib and Oxford University – Syria, amid the rejection of the Interim Government and the Free Aleppo University.
On 12 January, the Council issued a resolution to suspend the exams process in a number of private universities in the north of Syria, resulting in the closure of the universities of Samaan, Shams El Kuloub, Syrian University of Medicine, Aram, Higher Institute for Applied Sciences and Technology, the University of Minnesota, and the largest among all, the International Salvation University, which had 52 branches and 1127 students.
Dr. Majdi al-Hasani, Chairman of the Higher Education Council, pointed out that “the failure of many universities to raise their academic level and keep pace with development is the reason for their closure by the Council.”
The universities had been “chaotically and randomly” spread, as he put it, and had not met the licensing conditions based on law No. 31 of the Ministry of Higher Education of the regime’s government, which was adopted with few modifications that go in line with the circumstances of the region due to the absence of alternative laws to regulate the work.
Enab Baladi has shed the light, in a previous report, on the circumstances of the closure of private universities, and interviewed the former dean of the Faculty of Medicine at the Salvation Government, who pointed out that the closure decisions were “arbitrary and chaotic” and had non-scientific considerations.
However, al-Hasani stressed to Enab Baladi that the Council’s policy has not been based on the closure of the universities, but rather on the work on their integration and control of their spread. He said that all licenses are granted for a temporary period and any irregularities may lead to the closure of the institution or the suspension of the educational process in it, until it completes the basic educational standards.
The Free Aleppo University had been subjected to great pressures by the Council, before the relocation of its headquarters. These pressures included attacks by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham members on the previous headquarters of the Free Aleppo University. The attacks have been documented by videos published on social media websites pages, amid accusations against the Council for seeking to monopolize the field of higher education in the north of Syria.
While the Council’s movements have caused a state of confusion in the Free Aleppo University and a number of private universities, the University of Idlib, which forms the basis of the Higher Education Council, has not faced major security or administrative difficulties, as confirmed by an independent academician who is knowledgeable about the course of higher education process in the north, speaking on condition of anonymity for the sensitivity of the subject, pointing out that “the University of Idlib has all the ideal academic, administrative, and organizational characteristics of a university.”
General recognition crisis
While the internal crises of universities in opposition-held areas in the north of Syria, Free Aleppo University, Idlib University and private universities are facing the same crisis of international recognition of their diplomas, which may negatively affect the future of students in terms of eligibility of the obtained certificates.
These universities have not been able to obtain full recognitions, while some faculties or institutes affiliated to the Free Aleppo University and Idlib University obtained international classifications or recognitions from some academic institutions.
The Chairman of the Higher Education Council, Majdi al-Hasani, and the Minister of Higher Education at the Interim Government, Abdul Aziz al-Daghim, agree that recognition is a political decision that affects opposition institutions that do not have political recognition of their authority and legal existence. Students, doctoral and master’s degree, number of safety outlets, the way of setting questions, number of laboratories, and administrative divisions are involved in the determination of this political decision.
The Interim Government seeks to reach agreements with Turkish universities to identify the University of Aleppo with some universities, according to al-Daghim, to accredit the university’s certificates on the international level. They have unfortunately been repeatedly shocked by the fact that “the issue of accreditation is of political and legal, not academic, basis.”
Al-Hasani also pointed out that the recognition is a wide door from the range of standards required in each educational institution, and the region’s particularity might reduce these conditions. He noted that despite entering the global classification of universities, the University of Idlib has not yet obtained international recognition.
A “satisfactory” educational process and narrow horizon
The students’ perspective on the universities in North of Syria
Enab Baladi observed the point of view of a group of students from Aleppo Free University and the University of Idlib, as both educational establishments are considered as two higher education institutions in the opposition-controlled areas, as well as the opinions of a group of private university students, in order to find out the main problems and challenges facing them.
Students’ satisfaction by education and teachers
Ten students at universities within the opposition-controlled areas, interviewed by Enab Baladi, stated that the educational process is “satisfactory” and they are content with their universities as far as the education standards are concerned.
Mohammed Tamaa, a second-year student at the Institute of Information at the University of Idlib, confirmed to Enab Baladi that the teaching conditions at his university are undergoing remarkable developments, as the university responded to students’ complaints about the lack of practical subjects compared with the theoretical ones; noting that the teachers level is acceptable as they are the most distinguished academics in the region.
The students of the Institute of Information study curricula derived from that of the Institute of Information at the University of Damascus, in addition to subjects taken from Egyptian curricula, according to Tamaa.
Hanan Haj Hamidi, student at Idlib University’s Faculty of Medicine, also believed that “the teaching conditions are excellent, as professors hold masters and PhD degrees, and specialists as well as teachers are competent”, indicating that the curricula are based on the translation of recent references, in addition to the basic references taken from the University of Damascus.
Hanan stressed that when she graduates, she would be able to examine and treat patients, because the medical education she received qualify her to do so, as she puts it.
Abdul Wahab Mohammed, a second- year student at the Free Aleppo University’s Faculty of Sharia, described the educational process and the curricula as “excellent”, and believed that the university has many advantages and it is upgrading gradually.
Other two students, who study at the private University of Oxford’s branch, based in the countryside of Idlib, told Enab Baladi that the quality of teaching is satisfactory. Thus, Maya Ahmed Qaziz, a second year student of sociology, indicated that her university’s educational level is decent in terms of teaching techniques and scientific references, stressing that the teachers are “excellent” although some of them are still employing traditional teaching methods based on lecturing.
“Knowledge for the sake of knowledge”
While the universities in the north of Syria satisfy the scientific expectations of their students, the issue of the non-recognition of their diplomas affects their hopes and their plans for the future.
Tamma, told Enab Baladi that the Idlib University is not recognized at an international scale recognition, which constitutes “a point of weakness and a source of worry and exhaustion for the students. As such, Tamma stated that after four years of hard work, the student manages to obtain an unrecognized diploma, which is “frustrating”.
He added that the hope of gaining recognition and insisting on learning would prompt students to complete their studies even at unrecognized universities.
Wael Jomaa, a second-year Information Engineering student at the Free Aleppo University, also stressed the importance of international recognition of diplomas. However, he does not consider it a condition for receiving education, or a basis for getting a job, stating: “employers abroad would not mind to hire graduates of the universities of the opposition-controlled regions.”
Maya Ahmed Qaziz, pointed out that the future of her university (Oxford) is unknown in the near future. Thus, Qaziz’s concerns are linked to the university’s instability and the possibility of being shut down, while students are currently reassured, from her point of view, by the fact that the university is licensed by the Higher Education Council, which means access to jobs in the province of Idlib after graduation.
Muhannad al-Yamani, a graduate of the Institute of Information at the University of Idlib, said that there might be 10 percent hope that the University of Idlib would receive international recognition, stressing that “studying is always beneficial, and graduates study because their diplomas are recognized in liberated areas.”
Although al-Yamani is not currently working with his diploma, he stated that the reason for not being able to get hired in his field of studies is nepotism in the media job market, although the education students receive at the institute qualifies them to work in the best media foundations.”
Have the universities of the North become reliable scientific centers?
Despite being recently established, universities in opposition-controlled areas have attracted large numbers of students and have led the education field in the unstable areas of Syria.
Despite the subjective and objective conditions that hinder these universities, these educational establishments seek to have a footprint and maintain the continuity of higher education in the north of Syria.
In order to determine the reliability of these universities for the Syrians, Enab Baladi conducted an opinion poll on its Facebook page. The following question was posed: “According to you, have universities in opposition-controlled areas become educational institutions that students can trust?”
55 percent of the respondents, i.e. 3500 of the participants, answered “no”, while 45 percent of the participants expressed their trust in these universities.
Some of the respondents justified their opinions by commenting on the poll’s post. Thus, Abdul Rahman al-Hous, who answered “no”, justified his response by “the absence of international recognition” of universities in opposition-controlled areas and “the lack of educational standards permitting these universities to open its doors to students, in addition to the lack of teaching staff who are dispersed between private and public universities.”
Regarding the international recognition of the diplomas, Youssef Ogli stressed that “Syrian graduates are denied, till this moment, the possibility to carry on their higher education in the universities of the Western world, and private companies will not pay any attention to the diplomas they obtained from the universities of the opposition-controlled areas due to the lack of recognition abroad.”
Abdullah al-Adl indicated that the universities in the north of Syria are better than universities in areas controlled by the regime, in terms of educational staff, supervision, and science laboratories.
Rifaat Abdul Qadir Al-Saeed shared the same opinion adding that the universities in the opposition-controlled areas did not witness cases of “cheating and bribery”, while Hassan Fares believed that “despite the war, destruction and harsh conditions, these universities have built a great scientific edifice.”
The most prominent universities in opposition-controlled areas
University of Idlib
It is a public university, covering Idlib and its countryside and nearby areas. It includes 20 specialties over 16 faculties and 4 institutes with a total of 13,553 students in Idlib. Adding the number of the rest of the students in the faculties of human medicine and dentistry to the number of students in the faculties of Maarat al-Numaan, the total number of students becomes 15 thousand, according to the Chairman of the Higher Education Council, Majdi al-Hasani.
The university was launched in late 2015 and then merged under the authority of the Higher Education Council following the Salvation Government’s control over Idlib in 2017.
According to Ebaa News Agency, by the end of 2018, 1800 students from different departments have graduated from the university, including 172 higher education students.
The Faculty of Human Medicine at the University was listed in the Global Classification of Medical Education last August, after it was opened in the academic year 2016/2017. However, the university has not yet received international recognition.
Free Aleppo University
A public university, supervised by the Ministry of Higher Education in the Syrian Interim Government, with eleven colleges and four institutes.
The University has 45 PhD holders in the teaching staff of Free Aleppo University, and about 80 MA degree holders, according to the Minister of Higher Education at the Interim Government, Abdul Aziz al-Daghim.
The university was opened at the end of 2015, and announced, in March, the relocation of its faculties located in the areas controlled by the Salvation Government to the areas of the northern countryside of Aleppo. It has currently 5,200 students, and its premiums range between 50 and 75 US dollars for middle institutes, and between 125 and 250 US dollars for the faculties.
Al-Shahba Aleppo University
The second public university of the Higher Education Council. It consists of six faculties and one institute. It was previously known as the “Nahda University,” and was established in the buildings that were previously belonging to Free Aleppo University.
The university started at the beginning of the academic year 2018/2019. It is based in al-Dana in Idlib and has a branch in Sarmada and al-Atarib, according to official information.
Al-Shamal Private University
A private university, a merger of the Oxford University of Syria and the University of Rumah, with seven faculties and four institutes.
The two universities’ launch in Idlib dates back to 2015 and they have been merged under the licensing requirements stipulated by the Higher Education Council earlier this year.
Oxford University of Syria is a branch of the Yemeni Oxford University of Science and Technology, recognized by the Yemeni Ministry of Education, the Arab League and UNESCO, with branches in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Registration fees are $ 950 for conventional education and $ 500 for open education.
The registration fees of the University of Rumah, which was named after the well of Rumah (a.k.a Well of Uthman) in the city of Medina, range from $ 800 for the pharmacy and $ 600 for the rest of the departments.
A private university, established in Mersin in 2015, comprising seven faculties, and opened a branch in the city of Idlib in the countryside of Saraqib in 2017.
The university has partnerships and agreements with a number of universities, with the aim of obtaining recognition by one of the Arab or foreign ministries of higher education. It also has links with universities in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Jordan, Turkey, and Libya, according to its official website.
The university’s registration fees range between $ 1,500 and $ 4500.
A private university, established in Istanbul in 2016, and it is a branch of the University of Malaysia with government recognition in Yemen. It has an agreement with the University of East London and has seven specialties.
The university had faculties in Talbiseh, ar-Rastan and Houla, and moved to Idlib after the advance of the regime in 2018.
Academy of Health Sciences
A private non-profit university, operating since 2011, and is supported by the Syrian Expatriate Medical Association (SEMA). It has recently obtained recognition by the German Institute for Recognition, Licensing and Quality Assurance.
Its headquarters is located in the town of Atme in the countryside of Idlib. It has branches and several training schools in Idlib, which includes three institutes: nursing, physiotherapy, and emergency medicine.
Al-Hayat University for Medical Sciences
A private non-profit university, operating since 2016 in Maarat al-Numaan, and including disciplines such as nursing, midwifery, physiotherapy, and anesthesiology.
A private university, opened in 2014 in Gaziantep, having seven colleges and a branch in Idlib. The university opened another college at the beginning of the academic year 2018/2019 in Jarabulus in Aleppo countryside having three departments, namely Islamic studies, education, and Arabic language.
Syrian Academy of Alternative Energy and Science
Opened at the beginning of the academic year 2018/2019 in Deir Hassan and included two departments, namely the Alternative Energy Engineering (five-year degree) and the Institute of Alternative Energy (two-year degree).
Reality indicators and solution details: What is the future of higher education in the North?
The process of looking into the future of the institutions of higher education in opposition-held areas depends on two main factors. The first revolves around the nature of internal crises that may hinder the continuation of their work and the details of agreements and settlements that may occur after the end of the war in Syria, for these institutions belong to the opposition.
Given that the details of any solution to the conflict in Syria cannot be ascertained at this time, Enab Baladi tackled the current reasons that could indicate the way these universities are going to be sustainable, and explored plans of both opposition governments in the North to achieve this goal, in order to look into the future of these faculties.
After having interviews with independent academics and others affiliated with universities in northern Syria. Enab Baladi revealed that Aleppo University, which is currently affiliated with the Ministry of Higher Education in the regime’s government, may be the mother university that can bring together the universities of Free Aleppo and Idlib.
However, both the Ministry of Higher Education in the Interim Government and the Higher Education Council affiliated with the Government of the salvation have different plans to continue their work and to secure certificate recognition.
Free Aleppo seeks twinning with Turkish institutions
“The future of Aleppo University is linked to the fate of the Syrian people and its revolution as it is one of the institutions of the Syrian revolution,” said Abdul Aziz al-Deghaim, Minister of Higher Education.
In case of a political settlement, “our teaching and administrative staff will be introduced as if they were working for a private university. They will have the right to work at public universities of the next state and the certificates of their graduates will be accredited to work in state institutions.”
Dr. Mazen al-Saud, a professor at the Faculty of Medicine at the Free Aleppo University, confirms that the university is struggling with two parties. “First with the regime confronting any freedom seeker, and second Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham destroying the existing projects at the University of Aleppo when it was located in Idlib countryside. This could affect the future of the university.
He pointed out that the Free Aleppo University is “a replica of the University of Aleppo in the regime-held areas. The issue of education and related settlements must be addressed when negotiating the solution in Syria.”
Al-Saud added that negotiations are currently ongoing with the Turkish side in this regard. “There may be a kind of cooperation or twinning with the universities of Turkey, and there are some universities interacting. We want to find sponsors to improve the conditions of the university. ”
The future of private universities depends on the Council
The Council for Higher Education is in control of Syrian private universities in northern Syria since it grants them licenses and has the authority to suspend or approve their activity.
Chairman of the Council for Higher Education, Dr. Majdi al-Hasani, confirmed the existence of seven licensed private universities, which existed prior to its formation. He pointed out that the remaining universities were closed because they did not obtain licenses.
The Council requires universities to provide guarantees and meet the standards it has set, related to the curriculum, equipment and future staff, in order to grant them licenses.
Al-Hasani explained to Enab Baladi that the private universities listed by the Council for Higher Education are divided among two groups. The first group, including the universities of Mari and S.P.U. subject to strict scientific and academic standards, requires students to pay fees in addition to the owners. The universities offering free education, such as al-Hayat and Academy of Health Sciences supported by organizations and other parties, belong to the second group.
“Of course, these universities have a temporary license. Any disruption of the license conditions may lead to the closure of the university or suspension of the educational process until the procedures are completed.”
Chances for sustainability are greater for Idlib University
According to al-Hasani, “universities are more sustainable than governments. The University of Idlib has long been properly established and structured following institutional work that will remain sustainable whether the salvation government is staying or not.”
“If there is a political transition, I guarantee the sustainability of this university, because it is relying on the fees students are paying and it is assuming its own duty as well as its staff. In addition, such a university is not relying on any dirty political money.”
“The fate of the educational process at the University of Idlib is linked to the fate of the liberated North. The educational process will continue as a branch of the University of Aleppo in case the region was attacked,” said an academic source on condition of anonymity.
On the other hand, the source aware of the way universities in the Syrian north are proceeding, does not believe the University of Aleppo will meet a similar fate, for it “has no chance for sustainability at all as a result of the policy the salvation rescue government is adopting.”
Higher education is a pillar of Syria’s future: Call to attach file to solution negotiations
The issue of higher education in opposition-held areas has not caught international attention from the organizations concerned with supporting education. Despite its importance and impact on the future of Syria, it was considered as an internal file relying on self-help and heavily affected by the change of military forces and political divisions, and the imposed administrative issues.
The head of the board of directors at Midad Education without Borders, Azzam Khanji, told Enab Baladi that the support offered to education in Syria in 2018 did not exceed 2% of the total humanitarian support provided to the Syrians.
As for higher education, “the majority of international organizations, if not all, do not consider higher education as an urgent file, but rather believe children’s education is a more important issue,” said Khanji, who seemed surprised by this trend. He believes that ignoring the issue of higher education and depriving this sector of receiving the necessary support will turn tens of thousands of young people into victims of delinquency, crime and extremism, in addition to weakening the country and the loss of its mains resources, namely the youth.”
Khanji called on politicians to identify the file of higher education as one of the most important items of negotiation in any future political solution, and make efforts to ensure recognition of the certificates currently being adopted in opposition-held areas, both in university and pre-university education.
The head of the board of directors at Midad Education without Borders considers that the file of higher education is one of the most important and dangerous files on the national level of Syria, which is directly linked to future staff in order to build the future of Syria. “Every professor and university student represents a national treasure and abandoning them is a waste of national wealth. A university student learning indeed represents a victory for the Syrians.”
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