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Natalia Berenkova

Ph.D., Institute of International Relations and World History, N. I. Lobachevsky State University of Nizhny Novgorod

The education system in Syria has suffered irreparable losses, as many schools and higher education institutions have been destroyed during the eight years of war. The World Bank reports that 53 per cent of educational facilities in the country have suffered damage and 10 per cent have been destroyed entirely. Many Syrians have been forced to abandon their homes, while their children have had to leave schools. The humanitarian consequences of growing up surrounded by violence are far worse than any material losses.

Approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees have found asylum in Lebanon since the start of the Syrian conflict. The UN reports that 488,000 Syrian children aged between 3 and 18 are currently displaced in Lebanon. Despite donations to the Ministry of Education and Higher Education of the Republic of Lebanon and additional school shifts, more than half of the children from refugee families remain out of school.

The Middle Eastern Exhibition of Russian Universities organized by the Russian Centre for Science and Culture in Beirut was held in Syria and Lebanon from September 30 to October 6, 2019. A total of 19 higher education institutions from eight Russian regions took part in the exhibition. The universities and various specializations they offer were presented in Damascus, Latakia (Syria), Tripoli, Beirut, Tyre and Batroun (Lebanon).

According to Vadim Zaichikov, Director of the Centre, “we can say that the exhibition was a success, and we base this conclusion primarily on the large number of possible applicants who attended the educational events. A total of 2800 people attended the exhibition in Syria and more than 3500 people went to the exhibition in Lebanon.

Syria and Lebanon have different demands when it comes to educational services. However, Russian universities still have something to offer, while at the same time meeting both the economic and foreign political interests of the country. Nonetheless, Russian education should not be transformed into a cheap alternative to education in the West. Universities in the capital and the regions need to adapt the educational process to the needs of foreign students, while maintaining and, ideally, improving the quality of education.

Historically, Syria and Lebanon form a single region and events in one country inevitably influence the other. These states have always maintained a high literacy level in the Arab world. However, the war that started in Syria in 2011 and the concomitant regional crisis today threaten the accessibility of education for school and university students.

The Current State of Secondary and Higher Education in Syria and Lebanon

Children are particularly vulnerable in any war – both their future and the future of society as a whole are at risk. The education system in Syria has suffered irreparable losses, as many schools and higher education institutions have been destroyed during the eight years of war. The World Bank reports that 53 per cent of educational facilities in the country have suffered damage and 10 per cent have been destroyed entirely. Many Syrians have been forced to abandon their homes, while their children have had to leave schools. The humanitarian consequences of growing up surrounded by violence are far worse than any material losses.

Approximately 1.5 million Syrian refugees have found asylum in Lebanon since the start of the Syrian conflict. The UN reports that 488,000 Syrian children aged between 3 and 18 are currently displaced in Lebanon. Despite donations to the Ministry of Education and Higher Education of the Republic of Lebanon and additional school shifts, more than half of the children from refugee families remain out of school. In addition to the tangible obstacles hindering Syrian children from attending public schools, there are also a number of social and organizational barriers. For instance, some subjects in Lebanese schools are taught in English or French, meaning that Syrian children will have difficulty keeping up in these classes since, unlike Lebanese children, they are predominantly Arabic-speaking. Some human rights organizations have noted discrimination against Syrian children in schools, and many children are cut off from the educational process because they need to work and support their families. It should be noted that among Syrian refugees, particularly in the Beqaa Valley, a high proportion of girls marry at an early age, which also decreases their involvement in the educational process.

At the same time, informal and accelerated educational programmes for Syrians are becoming increasingly widespread in Lebanon. These programmes are intended to bridge the gap in education and are adapted to the psychological needs of children from refugee families. Since these programmes are not state-accredited, graduates cannot apply to higher education institutions in Lebanon. Thus far, these informal programmes are supported by humanitarian organizations, such as UNICEF, and are seen as a first step towards enrolling in official schools. Experts note that each year, the number of Syrian nationals enrolling in Lebanese universities is falling. First, fewer and fewer children are completing official Lebanese schools. Second, the number of scholarships given to Syrian students is falling, too, even though various non-governmental organizations and foundations have done a lot of work since 2011 to promote vocational and higher education among Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Third, Syrians in Lebanon are only allowed to work in certain low-paid jobs, such as construction and agriculture. Therefore, the only way they can legally use their university knowledge is if they go back to Syria or move to another country.

The refugee situation in Lebanon also negatively affects Lebanese families. Due to the increased numbers of Syrian children in public schools, Lebanese parents try to move their children to private schools, despite growing education costs. Only 28 per cent of Lebanese schoolchildren attend public educational institutions. At the same time, the Lebanese education system largely reflects the Lebanese political denominationalism, as religious groups and parties have their own schools. Private schools may be either secular or religious, and while parents pay approximately USD 160 a year (LBP 240,000) for public schools, tuition fees for private schools vary from LBP 1 million (USD 663) to over LBP 15 million (USD 9946). Given the country’s deteriorating economy, these expenses are a heavy burden for family budgets.

The latest major reform in higher education was carried out in 2014, when a new law was adopted subordinating universities to the Directorate General for Higher Education at the Ministry of Education and Higher Education. The state supervises education through a licensing process. Universities determine the contents of their curriculums, while the Ministry only sets down general outlines.

Throughout its history, the Lebanese higher education system has always been open to the world. Many universities have signed academic mobility and research cooperation agreements with foreign higher education institutions. The American University of Beirut founded in 1866 and Saint Joseph University founded in 1875 are Lebanon’s oldest and most prestigious higher education institutions. Private universities do not receive public funding. Their money comes from tuition fees, donations and gifts (to build campus facilities, for example), as well as from various independently developed cooperation programmes with other countries and universities. The American University of Beirut, for instance, has its own medical centre that functions as a hospital and treats patients for a fee.

The Lebanese University founded in 1951 is the country’s only public university, and its academic and administrative autonomy is regulated by a 1967 law. In Lebanon, direct public higher education funding does not exceed 0.5 per cent of the country’s GDP, which is below the average for OECD states. Due to the well-developed private educational sector, family spending on education is significantly higher than public spending. At the same time, only the Lebanese University receives public funding.

Even though Lebanon is not part of the Bologna Process, many universities started introducing some of its elements from the early 2000s. These developments primarily stem from the openness of education in Lebanon, student demand and interest in international cooperation. According to UNESCO statistics, France is the main destination for students travelling abroad to study (4582 people), followed in a distant second by the United Arab Emirates (1522 people), the United States (1395 people) and Saudi Arabia (1315 people). These statistics are hardly surprising: the French education system greatly influenced the development of the Lebanese education system. Many educational institutions teach in French, and some Lebanese citizens also hold a French passport. Moreover, many students hope to emigrate after graduation or to find a higher paying job abroad. This is connected not only with Lebanon’s orientation towards Europe, but also with the economic situation and growing unemployment, particularly among people with a higher education. Such sentiment is becoming doubly relevant as Prime Minister Saad Hariri has declared a “state of economic emergency” and as the financial crisis generates fears concerning the falling Lebanese pound and rising prices.

Opportunities for Russia

The Middle Eastern Exhibition of Russian Universities organized by the Russian Centre for Science and Culture (RCSC) in Beirut was held in Syria and Lebanon from September 30 to October 6, 2019. A total of 19 higher education institutions from eight Russian regions took part in the exhibition. The universities and various specializations they offer were presented in Damascus, Latakia (Syria), Tripoli, Beirut, Tyre and Batroun (Lebanon).

According to Vadim Zaichikov, Director of the RCSC in Beirut, “we can say that the exhibition was a success, and we base this conclusion primarily on the large number of possible applicants who attended the educational events. A total of 2800 people attended the exhibition in Syria and more than 3500 people went to the exhibition in Lebanon. The programme was compiled with three principal goals in mind: 1) increasing the number of foreign students studying in Russia and, consequently, increasing Russia’s non-resource exports; 2) increasing the number of foreign partner universities, creating effective international research teams and joint educational programmes; 3) increasing the number of projects for developing the joint results of intellectual activities and introducing them into the economies of Russia, Syria and Lebanon.” As Mr. Zaichikov noted, “promoting Russian science and education abroad is a key instrument of soft power. The results of work in this area are not immediate, yet they are less dependent on the changes in the current foreign political situation.”

It was the second time that the exhibition had been held in Syria and Lebanon. Commenting on the first Middle Eastern Exhibition of Russian Universities organized by Rossotrudnichestvo in 2018, Mr. Zaichikov noted “a 15 per cent increase in the number of Lebanese students studying in Russian universities in 2019. In actual figures, that means 110 more students from Lebanon studying in Russia and paying tuition fees. Statistically, every foreign student spends an average of USD 10,000 per year in Russia. Since the average university course is six years, these students alone will contribute additional USD 6,000,000 to the Russian economy. This is a purely economic indicator, but there is also a prolonged positive foreign political effect.”

Today, the prospects of promoting Russian education in the region’s countries are evident. This is due, first of all, to the growing demand for specialists needed to restore the infrastructure destroyed by the war. Education has suffered massive losses in the eight years since the Syrian conflict began. This, coupled with the outflow of qualified workers, led to a drop in the country’s human capital. However important investment in restoring infrastructure and economy might be improving the quality of education is a long-term contribution to the country’s future. Second, given the economic crisis and the high cost of receiving an education at a traditional brick-and-mortar university in Lebanon, Russian sectoral and classical universities present a good alternative, especially since their degrees are recognized abroad.

For Syria, Russia is a natural partner for educational aid, given the fact that Syrian nationals have limited access to education in western countries because of the sanctions. Russia is developing scholarship programmes for specialists of different levels in Syrian universities. This is a necessary area of activity, as is cooperation in the continuing professional development of instructors. As for Lebanon, attracting fee-paying students appears particularly relevant. Some Russian universities are starting to offer programmes in English, which is attractive for Lebanese applicants, many of whom were schooled in English and do not wish to spend a year on a Russian language preparatory course.

Syria and Lebanon have different demands when it comes to educational services. However, Russian universities still have something to offer, while at the same time meeting both the economic and foreign political interests of the country. Nonetheless, Russian education should not be transformed into a cheap alternative to education in the West. Universities in the capital and the regions need to adapt the educational process to the needs of foreign students, while maintaining and, ideally, improving the quality of education. This falls within the purview of both the universities themselves, and of state policy in the area. University graduates form the basis of horizontal direct ties between the societies of different countries. And this is necessary, for instance, for the development of economic connections, not only at the level of large corporations, but also at the level of small- and medium-sized businesses. Such ties create a firm foundation for inter-country relations and, in the long term, appear far more stable and important than individual political decisions.


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