Higher education recognition crisis in northwestern Syria

Edited by Enab Baladi

Higher education recognition crisis in northwestern Syria

Edited by Enab Baladi

Enab Baladi | Zeinab Masri

Post-secondary students in northwestern Syria have many available higher education institutions to continue their learning in a region controlled by two civil governments and several military factions.  

However, students’ somehow facilitated enrollment in higher education entities in northwestern Syria is disrupted near or after the end of their higher education phase. After graduating, students receive diplomas recognized within the boundaries of their regions only and find themselves at a crossroads, either to use the diploma to get a job in the local labor market or to seek an opportunity to study and work outside their regions.      

But travel restrictions imposed on Syrians by most governments, including Turkey, leave students no choice but to stay to work or continue studying in northwestern Syria; thus, abandoning the quest for international or Turkish recognition of their certificates. 

The issue of international recognition of university diplomas of Syrian students from northwestern Syria has returned to the surface after Turkish universities requested postgraduate Syrian students studying in Turkey to obtain a Turkish recognition of their certificates, leaving the future of their higher learning in Turkey in the unknown.   

In June 2019, Enab Baladi prepared an in-depth article titled “Universities of north Syria: Future hindered by crises,” in which it discussed the most prominent difficulties facing higher education institutions in northern Syria and students’ satisfaction with the work of these institutions. 

In this article, Enab Baladi highlights the issue of international recognition of academic certificates issued by public and private universities in northwestern Syria. Enab Baladi talked with university officials about efforts made to obtain recognition and the challenges facing these quests.    

Turkish recognition threatens Syrian students’ academic future  

After attaining a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 2020 first in his class, engineer and master’s student Mutaz Marandi from Aleppo city was given the opportunity to complete his postgraduate studies in Turkey, under a cooperation agreement between the private-owned Sham University from which Marandi graduated and the Turkish Karabük University.

Marandi entered Turkey from the Bab al-Salam border crossing with the help of the Turkish Humanitarian Relief Foundation (İHH).

Marandi’s new educational process in Turkey went smoothly until the university required him to obtain a recognition document of his certificate from the Turkish Council of Higher Education (YÖK).  

The young engineer and his colleagues, who had the same educational opportunity, failed to get the required recognition document because the YÖK does not recognize diplomas issued by universities in northwestern Syria. 

Marandi told Enab Baladi that he is not sure whether the failure to obtain a recognition document would impede the continuation of his learning in Turkey or not.  

He added that he will receive a certificate from Karabük University, which would allow him to continue doctoral studies even though the recognition issue of his university certificate remains unsolved in Turkey. 

Marandi shared with Enab Baladi the possibility of him working in private Turkish companies and facilities and getting nominated for Turkish citizenship as a Syrian student studying in Turkey.  

Marandi also told Enab Baladi that he is not preoccupied with the recognition issue, having studied in an unrecognized university. Instead, he focuses on the practical experience he will acquire from the apprenticeship (STAJ) in Turkey that will benefit him later when working as a university teacher in Syria.   

The Second Education Faculty in Idlib University - 25 June 2021 (Enab Baladi / Anas al-Khouli)

The Second Education Faculty in Idlib University – 25 June 2021 (Enab Baladi / Anas al-Khouli)

Some Turkish universities allocate seats for graduates of northwestern Syrian universities to complete their postgraduate studies, masters and doctoral degrees under one of the four following cases:

– Students’ direct registration at Turkish universities without the mediation of their university in northwestern Syria or civil society organizations.

– Cooperation agreements between Turkish and Syrian universities based in northwestern Syria.

– Registration at Turkish universities under the Turkish government’s scholarship program (Türkiye Bursları).

– Memorandum of cooperation between civil society organizations and Turkish universities.

No recognition so far..

Turkish universities and the YÖK (equivalent to the ministry of higher education in some countries) did not formally acknowledge diplomas granted by public or private universities in northwestern Syria to this date. 

Some Turkish universities accept a limited number of Syrian graduates in their postgraduate programs within the framework of cooperation protocols signed with Syrian universities in northwestern Syria or under scholarships offered by the Presidency for Turks Abroad and Related Communities (YTB), in a move that has not yet been determined as official recognition of these students’ certificates or not.   

The hopes of Syrian university students and those working in the higher education sector in northwestern Syria are pinned on Turkish recognition of diplomas since Turkey supports the region’s higher education by accepting high school certificates issued by local councils for registration in its universities.

The Turkish government also permits the entry of Syrian students to its lands to study in Turkish universities on a narrow scale and under certain conditions. 

Moreover, the Turkish government has overseen the opening of new faculties and departments for Turkish state universities in northern Syria.  

Last June, Idlib University announced the dispatch of the second batch of postgraduate students awarded with Turkish scholarships to Turkey after it sent 30 students with bachelor’s and master’s degrees to Turkey following their admission to the Turkish scholarship program in October 2020.

On 10 March, Education without Borders/Midad, a Syrian civil society organization, announced the admission of a group of graduates of the Free Aleppo University in the postgraduate study program of Gaziantep University in Turkey under a cooperation agreement between the organization and the university.

Diaa al-Qalesh, the vice-president of Free Aleppo University for administrative and student affairs, told Enab Baladi that university alumni have applied to Turkish universities and were accepted without previous memorandums of cooperation between the Free Aleppo University and the Turkish universities.

Al-Qalesh pointed out that an agreement was signed between the Free Aleppo University and some Turkish universities, allowing alumni from this university to enroll in the Turkish universities’ postgraduate programs. 

He mentioned that Free Aleppo University is reaching out to other Turkish universities to sign cooperation agreements in several fields, including students’ admission, noting that the main difficulty facing the university and students admitted to Turkish universities is the problem of obtaining permission to enter Turkey for education purposes.

Student admissions specialist at the Education without Borders/Midad organization, Ahmad Ismail, told Enab Baladi that the Syrian university graduates’ completion of postgraduate studies at Turkish universities is not a recognition of northwestern Syrian universities, but rather an opportunity offered by Turkish universities to Syrian students to pursue their education, under corporations between civil society institutions or universities in northern Syria with Turkish universities.

Ismail added that the Midad organization facilitated the enrollment of five graduates of Aleppo University at Gaziantep University in Turkey under an established protocol, as Midad supports the Turkish university’s faculties in northern Syria and provides salaries to the teaching staff.

However, the students might be expelled from Gaziantep University after the university’s new president requested them to present accredited bachelor’s degrees from the YÖK, which the students have failed to obtain, according to Ismail. 

Ismail added that most Turkish universities are now asking Syrian students to obtain a Turkish recognition of their certificates, while students’ conditions for admission vary depending on the university and sometimes the university’s administration policy.

Ismail also pointed out that the building of relations and communications with Turkish universities helps graduates from northern Syria to complete their studies in Turkey, adding that Idlib University benefited from cooperation agreements with Turkish universities and dispatched the largest number of alumni to Turkey to study there. 

The president of Idlib University, Dr. Ahmad Abu Hajar, told Enab Baladi that students dispatched to Turkey are admitted to Turkish universities according to an agreement between Idlib University and the YTB, which accepts graduates of most disciplines in the majority of Turkish state universities.

“The admission to Turkish universities is an accreditation or recognition of diplomas issued by Idlib University,” Abu Hajar said.

Abu Hajar added that the recognition is of bachelor’s degrees and master’s degrees issued by Idlib University.

Students holding master’s degrees can pursue a doctoral degree (PhD), Abu Hajar said.

He pointed out that this “accreditation” exists outside the university scholarships framework, as many Idlib University graduates wish to continue postgraduate studies in Turkey without signing a contract with the YTB.

Many universities and associations around the world “accredited” Idlib University’s certificates without official recognition, Abu Hajar said, adding that certificates granted by Idlib University “draw accreditation for the strength of the university disciplines’ scientific content.”

Faculty of Dentistry of Idlib University - 2021 (Enab Baladi / Anas al-Khouli)

Faculty of Dentistry of Idlib University – 2021 (Enab Baladi / Anas al-Khouli)

What is university accreditation or recognition? 

University Professor Abdul Rahman al-Haj explained in a Facebook post that the recognition of a university is an acknowledgment that certificates issued by this particular university are credible with regard to the academic qualifications of their holders and that they correspond to the quality standards of education adopted by the council of higher education of some state or the ministry of higher education (depending on the system of each country).

According to al-Haj, a university accreditation decision implies recognition, and a competent official state body in higher education must issue the decision (council of higher education or ministry of higher education).

He added that recognition comes in different levels. The country that recognizes the university licensed on its lands and accredited by that country’s official authority for higher education is the lowest level of recognition, as it is only valid in this country.

Recognition of a university outside the country where it was licensed and accredited requires accreditation or recognition by one of the recognized international accreditation bodies (associations, bodies, institutions, and unions). This recognition is only valid within the geography of the countries that acknowledge the accreditation bodies. 

A university cannot apply for accreditation outside the country where it is registered unless after the graduation of the first class of its students from at least three faculties and five years after its establishment. 

It may take years for a university to obtain recognition or accreditation, al-Haj wrote.

A divided sector under two councils

The Syrian Salvation Government (SSG) and the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), the two de facto authorities operating in northwestern Syria, run the higher education sector through their higher education councils in the Idlib region and the cities and towns of Aleppo countryside.

In March 2015, the opposition factions announced their control over Idlib’s city center, which led to the closure of the Syrian government’s Aleppo University’s faculties in Idlib. Later in the same year, the SIG established the Free Aleppo University (Aleppo University in the Liberated Areas), with more than 13 faculties and four technical institutes in Aleppo, Idlib, Homs countryside, Damascus countryside, and Daraa governorate.  

However, the SSG’s control of Idlib government and parts of Aleppo’s western countryside in late 2017 forced the closure of the Free Aleppo University’s faculties in Idlib and headquarters in al-Dana town, north of Idlib, in 2018. This prompted the SIG to move the university’s headquarters to Aleppo countryside.  

In June 2018, a group of religious police or “al-Hisba” elements known as Sawaed al-Khair, operating under Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), the dominant military force in Idlib, closed Ebla Private University in northeastern Saraqib in Idlib countryside.

The group stormed the university’s headquarters following the emergence of a video showing female and male university students dancing at a graduation party. They arrested the university president and prosecuted him after closing the university on the grounds of indecent behavior.   

In February 2019, the International Salvation University in Idlib countryside announced its closure after failing to obtain a license. A month earlier, Idlib’s Higher Education Council issued a decision to suspend the examination process at the International Salvation University, the Rayyan International University, Aram Science University, the Syrian Medical University, and the Shams El Kuloub University. The council granted the universities a month period to settle their legal situations and obtain licenses threatening to close them if they failed to do so.  

Last February, the SIG announced the closure of several faculties and medical institutes at the private International University of Science and Renaissance in Azaz city of Aleppo’s northern countryside for lack of license, pending the fulfillment of necessary requirements to continue the licensing process and teaching. 

On a related subject, the Turkish government established faculties and departments for two of its state universities (Gaziantep University and the Health Sciences University) in the cities and towns of Aleppo countryside under the SIG control.

While this Turkish move was possible in Aleppo countryside, Idlib University refused to open faculties affiliated with Turkish universities in the Idlib region. 

President of Idlib University, Dr. Ahmad Abu Hajar, who is responsible for running the work of the SSG’s Ministry of Higher Education, told Enab Baladi, “We do not want or seek to have Turkish universities opening faculties and departments in Idlib. However, when this happens, it will be under our terms and conditions and for specializations the region needs.”

Students taking an exam at the private Mari University in Idlib, 1 July 2021 (Mari University)

Students taking an exam at the private Mari University in Idlib, 1 July 2021 (Mari University)

Conditions impeding recognition

To obtain recognition, universities of northwestern Syria reach out to international universities, which lay conditions that most Syrian universities fail to accomplish, including high payments, certified documents from a recognized official authority, or the graduation of a certain number of students. 

The recognition decision also depends on postgraduate students’ numbers and the numbers of PhD and master’s degrees students, the examination criteria, the number of laboratories, and administrative divisions.

The president of the private Mari University, Dr. Khaled al-Taweel, told Enab Baladi that all universities in northwestern Syria are seeking accreditation. However, no university has obtained genuine recognition so far; instead, they got partial recognition from some universities through twinning relationships, partnerships, or scientific cooperation, with “solid” promises of recognition in the next phases.

Al-Taweel added that some of the universities Mari University contacted for accreditation have demanded large sums, which would require increasing students’ tuition fees, that students will not be able to cover.   

He added that students studying at universities in Syria’s northwestern region mostly end up working in the same region and lose interest in whether their certificates are accredited or not. 

As for the quality of education students receive in these universities, it is “excellent” and better than that provided in the regime’s universities or probably in other neighboring countries’ universities, according to al-Taweel.

When asked about the purpose of establishing universities in northwestern Syria without securing recognition in advance, al-Taweel said that students would continue their higher education with or without recognition.

He added, “if universities managed to obtain recognition, it would be great, but if they failed, it would still be better for students to continue their education in these universities rather than sitting in streets doing nothing. Students should continue learning and have patience until God’s will is fulfilled,” as he put it.  

Al-Taweel mentioned that some Turkish universities had admitted several students from northwestern Syria in their postgraduate studies.

According to al-Taweel, 75 students from Idlib University were previously admitted to Turkish universities, and that this year, it is expected that a number of students from the public Idlib University and the two private universities of al-Shamal University and Mari University will study in Turkey as well. 

A previous attempt to obtain recognition

Last year, Mari University attempted to obtain recognition from the private Maryam Abacha American University of Niger and received positive promises. Nevertheless, the American university requested a large number of graduates as a prerequisite for recognition (100 students a year), a number that the Mari University could not meet for being a small private university. 

The American private Maryam Abacha University was founded in Niger in 2013. It is recognized by the Federal Ministry of Education of the Nigerian government and accredited by the Accreditation Service for International Colleges (ASIC), a member of the American Council on Education (ACE).

The American university also requested large amounts of money in return for certifying or recognizing certificates, but students refused to pay the amounts needed; therefore, the university was forced to abandon the matter. 

It is possible however in future years and under different circumstances to reactivate the recognition agreement with Maryam Abacha University, al-Taweel said. 

Sometimes recognition is available but costly

Bashakshehir University: A unique case

While universities in northwestern Syria face difficulties obtaining recognition by other universities outside Syria, Bashakshehir University in al-Bab city managed to make an agreement with the Jordanian Yarmouk University to grant its certificates to Syrian students.

Bashakshehir University is a branch of Bashakshehir Academy in the Bashakshehir area in Istanbul-Turkey, established and licensed there in 2015. The university was opened in al-Bab city of Aleppo countryside in 2017 after the area’s liberation from the Islamic State (IS).  

This year and after the formation of the SIG’s Higher Education Council, the university was licensed in northern Syria under its original name, the university’s administrative official Mohammed al-Khidr told Enab Baladi

Bashakshehir University has signed recognition agreements with universities outside Turkey, including the Jordanian University of Yarmouk, on condition of compliance with the laws and regulations of the partner university, al-Khidr said.

He added that the Bashakshehir Academy in Turkey is not a university and grants certificates issued by the partner university, adding that students who studied the Yarmouk University’s study program have obtained the Yarmouk’s certificates in the bachelor’s and postgraduate programs.  

As for the Bashakshehir University in al-Bab city, the university provides its students with two certificates, one issued by the university and certified by the SIG’s Council of Higher Education and the second from the partner university, if students asked for it.

Al-Khidr pointed out that the Yarmouk University’s certificate granted to Bashakshehir students is recognized everywhere, while equivalency conditions differ from country to country and according to the type of equivalency required.

Bashakshehir University has worked on securing its students with international academic degrees. It made new agreements with the Free International University of Moldova (ULIM) and obtained most of its programs except for the Islamic sharia and Arabic language programs obtained from other partner universities.

Al-Khidr referred to some agreements the Bashakshehir Academy signed with the Arabic language program managements in other universities, such as the agreements with the Turkish state universities of Ağrı and Iğdır, which gave the academy the authority to administer and register students and teach in Arabic at those universities.

Bashakshehir University requires student applicants to provide certificates accepted by the Higher Education Council. However, when only the Bashakshehir Academy existed, students were required to certify their documents or present the Turkish equivalency letter (Denklik) as part of the requirements of the partner university. 

Al-Khidr said that financial constraints prevent students from obtaining the Yarmouk University’s certificates, adding that about 95 percent of undergraduate students are covered by full scholarships, while the percentage of master’s degree students studying at their expense is much higher.

The Yarmouk University’s certificate costs 4000 US dollars for either bachelor’s or master’s degrees, including the defense of the master’s thesis. 

Challenges facing universities in northwestern Syria

In addition to the recognition crisis, the decade-long war and the economic hardships it has left present many difficulties against universities in northwestern Syria. 

University students in northern Syria complain of high tuition fees amid deteriorating living and economic conditions.  

One of the main difficulties facing the region’s universities is the lack of security and military stability. University owners pay considerable sums to secure suitable buildings and equipment for students. However, insecurity leaves investors, teaching staff, and students in a state of constant concern of the Syrian regime’s military advancements, bombings, or destruction, the president of the private Mari University, Dr. Khaled al-Taweel, said.

Meanwhile the president of the public Idlib University, Dr. Ahmad Abu Hajar, said that some students face financial difficulties, but the presence of charity associations, such as the General Authority of Zakat, the Molham Volunteering Team, and other charitable groups is helping in solving this problem. 

Universities in northwestern Syria suffer from a shortage of teaching staff and the number of master’s or doctoral degree students in specific specializations. They also suffer logistically, with a lack of specialized equipment such as high-tech computers and laboratory equipment, the Bashakshehir University administrative official Mohammed al-Khidr said.



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