BUDAPEST – Educating refugee children was high on the agenda when donors met in London in early February for a record-setting day of fundraising for Syria. As Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai explained, “Losing this generation is a cost the world cannot [afford].”
It is important to remember, however, that Syria’s school-age children are not the only generation at risk of being lost. The Institute of International Education (IIE) estimates that as many as 450,000 of the more than four million Syrian refugees in the Middle East and North Africa are 18-22 years old, and that approximately 100,000 of them are qualified for university. They, too, are in desperate need of opportunities to further their studies.
Peace will eventually come to Syria. It is impossible to know exactly when, but all wars end. One day, the guns will fall silent, and the country will begin to rebuild. As we have learned from the dramatic failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, reconstruction will be successful only if Syrians – not outsiders – lead the effort. With millions of Syrians seeking refuge abroad, the country will face a desperate shortfall of skilled, educated workers just when it needs them most.
That is why a global effort to provide higher education for Syrian refugees must be undertaken. More than $10 billion was raised at the conference in London. Those pledges must now be backed up with concrete technical support and a massive, innovative intervention in the countries hosting the most refugees: Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan. Such an effort would not only provide hope to those who have been displaced by the war and reduce the incentive to flee to Europe; it would enhance the host countries’ educational capacities.
Many universities are already working to help refugees. At the Central European University in Budapest, students and faculty rushed to assist the refugees who were crowded into the city’s train stations last fall. We have also set up special classes to teach refugees English, Hungarian, and asylum law, and we offer scholarships to qualified applicants. We have brought in Syrian scholars to discuss the eventual reconstruction of their country. And our university is just one example among many across Europe that are similarly engaged.
And yet, as important as these efforts may be, they risk leaving out the refugees in the countries neighboring Syria. Turkey alone is hosting tens of thousands of Syrians who would have qualified to attend university back home. Most of them are neither studying nor working. Fewer than 5% are enrolled in Turkish universities. More funding for public and private universities would help expand educational opportunities for refugees and natives alike.
In London, Amel Karboul, the secretary-general of the Maghreb Economic Forum, called on private technology companies to provide “creative, maybe even disruptive” solutions to the challenge of educating refugees. Indeed, providing such a large number of potential students with the opportunity to study will require the creation of a new form of cost-effective university education, combining online courses with classroom teaching in inexpensive pop-up facilities.
Teaching should be offered in several languages, including English, and the focus of the curriculum should be technical and practical. Offerings could include training in critical thinking and courses on computer coding. The emphasis of the effort would be on accessibility and flexibility, so that students could work while they studied.
A handful of technical degrees could be offered at first – information technology, project management, construction management, urban planning, teacher training, public health, and nursing. Coursework would also highlight the cultural similarities between Syrian refugees and their host countries. Public spaces where diverse groups can mix are crucial not only to education, but also to managing post-conflict situations.
Europe should lead the way, with money as well as expertise. Replicating the Syrian government’s curriculum will not be helpful. The first stage of the project will require training teachers and administrators, as well as educating professors in new pedagogical approaches, including how to develop online courses.
The education on offer would not be luxurious. Students would not have access to massive libraries, gyms, or ivy-clad quadrangles. The institutions they attend would not be world-class research universities. But the education they receive will ensure that Syria’s refugees are offered a future – one with brighter prospects for themselves and their country.