Higher education under Assad

Students leave Syria to prove their mettle

The impact of the war on under-funded Syrian universities has been manifold. Yet German education authorities remain unperturbed by the current proliferation of forged Syrian certificates. By Joseph Croitoru

One devastating consequence of the war in Syria is the alarming state of the country's universities. But even before the conflict, which has driven some five million Syrian citizens into exile, among them countless lecturers, students and potential students, these institutions were not without their problems.

Despite the fact that in the Arab world, Syria is regarded as having the most comprehensive school and university education, even years after the foundation of the nation in 1946, it still only had one university – the University of Damascus, which dates back to 1923. It was 1958 before Aleppo University was founded; then, as part of the consolidation of the Baath regime under Hafiz al Assad, two further universities were established in Latakia and Homs in the 1970s.

Under the government of his son Bashar, not only have three more state universities opened, but also 20 private universities. The new private sector institutions were only partially able to relieve the pressure on state educational establishments – pressure that continued to grow as a result of laws guaranteeing a study placement to all. One of the reasons for this was that while the state universities only levied symbolic tuition fees, private university fees were well above what most students could afford.

Even before the Arab Spring, this situation resulted in massively crowded lecture theatres. Thus in 2012 most of the remarkable 33 percent of young Syrians who were attending university were registered at a state institution.

Syrians gather at the scene of an explosion outside Aleppo University, between the university dormitories and the architecture faculty, on 15 January 2013 (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
University communities bear the brunt of Bashar al-Assadʹs wrath: according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, 1,629 students were killed in attacks and raids by government troops during the first two years of the civil war. The same period saw the imprisonment of a further 35,000 students; of these nearly 100 died as a result of torture in detention

Large-scale dilution of the Syrian university landscape

Back then, the system was already being criticised for its outdated curricula and tuition methods that prioritised memorising passages from text books. A rigidly traditional teaching style was the rule; free and intensive exchange with lecturers was rarely possible. One of the reasons for this was that the latter were so badly paid they were often working in two jobs, leaving them little time for student supervision. Criticism of the Assad regime was not tolerated. From 2011 onwards, any students or university lecturers who dared lobby for greater freedoms rapidly became the victims of brutal repression – as did school pupils.

During the civil war, a number of universities were caught in the crossfire and occasionally even came under direct fire themselves. In addition to the university in the embattled city of Aleppo, the state Al-Furat University in the eastern Syrian city of Deir al-Zour was also affected, when battles broke out there between government troops and the rebel Free Syrian Army. Later, the campus was also regularly bombed by the "Islamic State" terror militia, which invaded the area and attacked government positions.

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