A University in Every Refugee Camp

The Syrian Civil War provides an opportunity to re-think the role of higher education in supporting reconstruction and the ongoing refugee crisis.

By Juda Jelinek.

It seems obvious that in various post-war environments—such as East Timor, Nicaragua, Bosnia, Lebanon, and Iraq—the quality of higher education has deteriorated. In the context of state collapse or instability, usually unaccredited and often low-quality institutions outside of official regulatory control expand to fill or even exploit the gap. In post-conflict rebuilding, higher education is traditionally but wrongly treated as a secondary priority. The reality is that while education provides limited short-term gains, it is an important factor in long-term growth.

When measuring the human cost of conflict, lives lost are surely the most important factor. But in the aftermath, when the process of rebuilding takes priority, the long-term effects of a diminished capacity to provide higher education cannot be understated. A lost generation, coming of age without access to opportunity, will cost a nation for decades to come. If an end to the Syrian Civil War may be near, it is important to investigate the role of higher education in reconstruction efforts. However, even if the region remains unstable, higher education should be considered among the strategies necessary to alleviate the ongoing refugee crises.

One of the dilemmas is that in many post-conflict scenarios, physical and civil reconstruction relies on expensive foreign technical assistance rather than on developing training institutions for local individuals. In the cases of Afghanistan and Iraq, many ministries employed foreign experts rather than hiring locally, creating unsustainable institutions and furthering a state of dependency. The solutions may be to start investing in the education of refugees immediately during a conflict, when much of the world feels otherwise unable to help.

In the case of Syria, the importance of supporting higher education is emphasized by the fact that before the war began, more than 25 percent of 18-24 year old Syrians were enrolled in higher education. It is estimated that 150,000 Syrians were engaged in tertiary education or were intending to begin shortly when the conflict erupted. Their education has now been interrupted for nearly six years. Higher education professionals have also suffered the consequences of the institutional breakdown, and it is estimated that …

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