Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Syria & Higher Education: A Battle to Win

October 7, 2009

One of the most important issues that the Syrian government has to face urgently is how to strongly increase the level of higher education (or tertiary education) in the country. In fact, the current university facilities are absolutely inadequate for a growing number of people demanding a university education. Syria has a population of around 18.5 million and around 36 percent is aged less than 15 years. This means that in the coming years more and more young Syrians will demand higher education courses. The aim of this article is to describe the current situation of the Syrian educational system with a specific attention given to tertiary education.

Notwithstanding the fact that Syria is a low-income country it has a good educational system. And in the last ten years the government has increased the expenditure in order to provide a better and improved educational system. As a good example it could be considered that, in year 2000, 12.6 percent of government total expenditure was allocated for education, while after just five years the percentage was raised to 15.7 percent (in the MENA region the percentage is around 18.3 percent). According to data provided by the World Bank, (W.B.), while in 2000 total expenditure for the education stood at 35 billion Syrian pounds, this amount was more than doubled in 2005 when 4.3 percent of G.D.P. was allocated for education. 

Syria in the Human Development Index is ranked 105th out of 179 countries, but it is important to underline that it is one of the very few Arab countries that obtained the result of providing universal primary education. In 2004, the literacy level stood for young people aged 15–24 years at 92.4 percent. 

The Syrian Ministry of Education has the responsibility of supervising the educational system and of deciding the curriculums and targets of the teaching activity. In specific, the ministry has to provide educational services to all of its 14 directorates in the governorates. The 14 directorates are the bodies materially responsible for the schools in their governorates.

The Syrian educational system is based on the old French system. Education is given free of charge in public schools and it is mandatory up to the 9th grade.

There are three levels of school:
  • 1st to 4th grade: Basic Education Level I (mandatory)
  • 5th to 9th grade: Basic Education Level II (mandatory)
  • 10th to 12th grade: Secondary Education (not mandatory, it is equivalent to high school in Western countries). 
In 2007, the student population was around 8 million students, with 4 million enrolled in basic level I, 1.4 million in basic level II and 2.3 million in tertiary education.    
At the end of 9th grade all students have to take the final exams. Their results will decide whether students are entitled to attend general secondary schools or technical secondary schools. In fact, Syria has a large number of students attending the so called technical and vocational training. These vocational schools are: industrial schools (for males), agricultural schools (for males), craft schools (for females), commercial schools (for both males and females) and science schools (for both male and females). The vocational system is particularly rigid and there is no possibility to go back to general secondary school. Instead, students that go to general secondary schools at the beginning of the 11th grade have to decide whether they want to study in the literary branch or in the scientific branch.

At the end of 12th grade students have to pass the baccalaureate and also in this case according to their results it will be decided which university the student will attend and in particular which his/her faculty will be. This system is called Mufadalah.  It's probable that some students will be forced to study at faculties they do not like. The tradeoff is that the fees are really very cheap ($70 a year, all included) for students with good marks. Instead, if students do not get good results with their baccalaureate exams they may still enroll in a faculty, but they have to pay higher fees ($1500 to $3000). In addition, are now being created private schools and colleges, but, as it will be examined below, fees are much higher. 

In 1966 it was established the Ministry of Higher Education with the specific task of supervising the scientific and educational institutions. In other words, the ministry has the supervision over universities, academic councils, the Arab Language Academy and educational hospitals. The majority of public universities in Syria follows the French model of higher education with a three-stage system.
  • The first stage is the license, which is awarded after four years to six years of study according to the different fields.
  • The second stage is the DEA or DESS, which requires one year to two years of study after the license. 
  • The third stage is the doctorate, which requires three years to five years of study after the DEA or DESS.

Three are the main problems affecting the Syrian tertiary education and they are all linked among them. They are:

A) Too many students for too few universities
B) Providing quality assurance mechanisms
C) Almost free tertiary education

A) Too many students for too few universities  The most important challenge that public universities have to face urgently is the impossibility to physically accommodate and to guarantee high standards of quality to an always-increasing number of students requiring tertiary education. At the University of Damascus it is quite common to have 2,000 students to 3,000 students, who all want to attend the same lecture, which is normally given in classes that can physically accommodate a maximum of 500 people. In the period,  from 2003 to 2007, the number of students requiring higher education increased by 50 percent and this problem will be worsening in the following years given the fact that 36 percent of the Syrian population is now aged less than 15 years. At the University of Damascus in 2008 there were 120,000 students. It is indeed a huge number. Moreover, it should be considered that the body of students it is not well balanced among the different faculties. In fact, that there are some departments, like the English and Arabic language departments inside the Faculty of Arts and Humanities, that are hugely overpopulated. Domestic policies are trying to push some students to enroll in the faculties of engineering and medicine, but when at secondary schools many students choose the humanities track then for them it is a natural choice continuing to study literature once they are at the university. 

In the year 2008-2009 the universities accepted 264,550 students (these figure were released by the magazine Shabablek and the Ministry of Higher Education. For just five public universities, it is indeed a huge number and for this reason the public universities have started to apply some measures in order to cope with so many students. Two solutions have been: introducing multiple-choice exams and canceling some research sessions. It's manifest that these are not real and long-lasting solutions.

In order to reduce the overcrowding, the Syrian government is moving toward a very drastic decision: limiting the number of people admitted to tertiary education. As a result of this action, at the University of Damascus in the last two years students have decreased by 10 percent each year. This is a tough decision, which is compensated by the intention of increasing the number of the teaching staff. At least an increased staff will improve the student-to-staff ratio. This has been possible through a recent decree issued by President Bashar al-Assad. This law permits to top students in every area to be immediately appointed as tutors without the usual selecting process, which is normally the required road for government positions. There is also the will to have more professors with Ph.D.s earned abroad.

A good solution  but very expensive could be an expansion of the facilities. This is exactly what the University of Damascus is doing on a large scale. Right now, at the University of Damascus, there are more than 200,000 square meters of facilities under construction. New departments, like the Spanish and German language departments, have been added recently, while the Italian department will be open in 2010. Many of these projects are being developed through the support of foreign countries and this could be the way to gain sufficient funds and resources.

Probably the best tool the government has to provide to more students a good tertiary education is to establish new universities, which it defines as satellite branches of the most prestigious public universities. Syria has five public universities: Damascus, Homs, Aleppo, Lattakia and Deir ez-Zor. The regional branches are located in Dera’s, Suweida, Idlib, Tartus, Hama, Hassakeh and Raqqa. Obviously, because these new branches have been established quite recently, they do not have all the faculties that can be found in the five original institutions, but with time they will expand and the intention of the government is to transform the regional branches into new independent public universities. In addition to the original universities and the new branches, there are all across Syria 31 intermediate institutes. These are not universities, but they can provide to students two-year courses in some disciplines taught at the universities. Since the beginning of 2009 in Syria 8 new branches (with limited faculties) and 8 intermediate institutes in four governorates have started their activities. The fact of having tertiary or quasi-tertiary education all across the country is a very good option for all the Syrians who are not residents and are not living in one of the five places where are located the old public universities. In this way, students can save a lot of time and money. Moreover, at the new branches it is possible to enroll in departments where classes are very small. A reduced number of students may permit a better interaction between students and professors. In other words, it is easier to have a high level quality with reference to the taught subjects.
B) Provide quality assurance mechanisms 
Quality in Syria means to work with reference to two issues: Offering modern teaching methods and curricula and secondly tackling corruption. In fact, at public universities many departments have very old programs. A good example could be taken from several Syrian faculties of economics where still in 2009 the programs are based on Soviet-style central planning economics. The reason is that many professors in the 1960s studied in the Soviet Union.

A difficult issue to be tackled is the fact that in Syria it does not exist any independent body to examine universities and to assess the quality of their courses. Three years ago the Ministry of Higher Education started to work with the British Council in order to create a quality assurance system to be implemented in each Syrian university. The target was to be able to establish a center for evaluation, assessment and capacity building for professors. A similar cooperation agreement has been recently signed with the German academic state agency. The difficulties to set up this quality assurance center is that inside the Ministry of Higher Education some circles want this assurance center to be under direct control of the ministry while other circles would like to grant it a powerful independence. With this internal quarrel the center has not yet being created.

What the ministry has to do right now is to reform teaching plans according to what is required in the 2009 job market. Labor market is always changing. Economic courses based on Soviet-style central planning may be interesting from a historical perspective, but then they should be reformed in order to provide university courses spendable on the job market. In Syria, since the last years, there has been an important growth of both private banks and private insurance companies. These two modern sectors cannot rely on people who have studied program dating back to some decades ago. And for example if Syrians do not study the right and updated disciplines, the jobs in the two mentioned sectors will always go to foreigners. A good solution could also be to provide students in the last years of tertiary education with specialization paths, so that students after graduation could be considered as experts in the chosen field of study.   

In any case, although the quality assurance center has still a long way to run, every university has now a strategic plan with objectives and in every university there is a quality assurance center with a specific director. Good quality universities provide two good results for students: a positive studying experience and the possibility to find a first-class job after tertiary studies.

The second issue to be tackled is corruption that is an endemic problem in Syria more or less everywhere. In fact, at the moment of this writing, there are some professors at the University of Damascus under investigation for irregularities during their examinations. It is not easy to give some numbers to the problem of corruption at universities, but according to some interviews (done under the condition of anonymity) stories of corruption have emerged quite well. In general, this means two things: students paying money to pass an exam or a phone call done by a powerful person ordering a professor to permit a student to pass an examination with no serious test. It seems that the majority of these cases have happened at the Faculty of Law, the Faculty of Economics and the Faculty of Literature. The situation in the last years has partially improved thanks for example to multiple-choice exams.

Why is there so much corruption? A first reason could be the low salaries at public universities. In fact, at the private universities — where salaries are much higher — corruption is almost inexistent. But this is only a partial explanation because salaries at public universities for professors have improved and they earn more than $1,000 per month plus additional benefits. They are among the best-paid public servants. A second explanation could be that it is quite difficult to be punished so some professors could be lured by the idea of getting easily some extra money. Students and honest professors are scared and disillusioned about reporting corruption cases which they know. A possible reason could be that sometimes there is the idea that for public universities it is much more important to protect their reputation and avoid embarrassment than to take action against corrupted professors. This is true especially now that Syrian universities are expanding a lot domestically and internationally. It goes by itself that this way of thinking is only focused on the short-term. According to Minister of Higher Education Ghiath Barakat, there have been only 8,000 documented cases of corruption out of a student population of 500,000, but people say that the phenomenon is much more spread out.        
C) Almost free tertiary education
Another problem that the Syrian government will be obliged to consider is trying to understand whether also in the future it will be capable of providing public university with almost o charge. Given this situation, providing public tertiary education almost for free is a huge burden on the government’s balance sheet. Some suggested that it could be introduced a sort of low-cost or interest-free loans, which students would pay back only when they would start to work. But at the moment there are no serious plans for a real change. It is true that, with a per-capita G.D.P. around $4,700 there is not much room for Syrians to pay additional money for their studies. In the last year, there have been for Syria some political improvements on the international arena and as the executive director of the British Syrian Society, Ghayth Armanazi says "until recently perceived as a pariah state, Syria is now a country courted by many." This is absolutely correct, but Syria is still a low-income country with a big chunk of the population living in poor conditions and, before these political improvements may bring important economic upswings, it will take a lot of time.  

President Bashar Al-Assad authorized the decision to allow private universities in Syria in 2001 (Decree 36). Now, in the country there are 15 private universities. Previously, there was the idea and hope that the opening of private universities would have permitted to ease the burden of public institutions. It did not work out toward the mentioned goal because private universities charge students with fees that are absolutely unbearable for the average Syrian family. In some private institutions fees may reach the stellar amount of $10,870. According to the U.N.D.P. and the Syrian Central Bureau of Statistics, 16,000 students are registered at the 15 Syrian private universities. It is less than 4 percent of all Syria's tertiary students and this means that the burden is always and will continue to be loaded on the public universities. In other words, at the private Syrian universities there are enrolled just people of well-off families who previously would have gone abroad to study. The opening of private universities permit now to partially “solve the problem of having students’ future determined by their baccalaureate results” as the president of Kalamoon University, Assaad Loutfi, points out — Kalamoon University is a private university that opened in 2003. The problem of the high fees is always present although some systems to provide students with scholarships have been in recent times implemented. In any case, these account for a very small number of the studying body. Another manner in order to pay reduced fees for students consists in getting very good results. In this way, private universities can return students the paid fees or avoid asking for payments in relations to the following term. 

Private universities are treated as public universities. Also for them it is “the Ministry of Higher Education that sets lesson plans, curriculum, interior systems and employment process, as well financial matters” remembers the president of Yarmouk Private University, Fayez Kiwan Yarmouk Private University (Y.P.U.) opened in October 2008. What is really different between private universities and public universities is that in the former students have more flexibility in studying what they want. An important point is that in most private universities the taught courses are given in English and this could permit to students to later approach better the job market. The studying methodology normally follows the American credit-hour system and in general it is put a lot of importance on participation, team-working and the creation of solving-problem skills. In other words, private universities try to avoid an excessive reliance on rote learning. In addition, another positive feature of private universities is the fact that they have more cooperation agreements with both American and European universities and that they run exchange programs for both students and teachers. Also for private universities, exchange programs with universities abroad are based upon governmental agreements among countries.  

The problem for private universities could be the quality of the degrees they release. In fact, to date, many of these new institutions still have to graduate a class. As Syria Today magazine points out:
the legislative framework establishing private universities allow them to be set up as profit-making ventures. This mean that, unlike private universities in the West which are independent corporations of scholars, local private universities have an incentive to ease up on weaker students who would not pass elsewhere, at the expense of academic integrity.

Obviously, if private universities do not have a sufficient number of students there will be great problems for the universities in order to survive economically. This problem, as it was well explained above, can reduce that quality of the private tertiary education. Recently, a private university based in the city of Aleppo, in the northern part of the country, has been closed as a consequence of a quality gap in relation to its standards. All this said, there are some mechanisms for monitoring private universities. Normally, an academic committee check on the place whether a private university is adhering to the rules of quality assurance decided by the ministry.  
The steps the Syrian government has started to implement all go towards the right direction. In particular, the creation of new university branches located in different Syrian cities is probably the best move in order to reduce the number of students enrolled in every tertiary institution. In addition, it could be a good idea to provide means to assess and then to improve the quality of tertiary education in the country. Obviously, it should be implemented a strategy in order to tackle immediately all the episodes of corruption at the universities. If these corruption episodes were brought in the limelight, they would probably have negative short-term consequences in terms of bad reputation. But in the long-run, they would be important tools to improve the quality of Syrians institutions.

On the one hand, with reference to the new private universities they could be good quality institutions, but they won’t be able to reduce the overpopulation of public universities. Their fees are too high. On the other hand, private universities could be very useful to help public universities to develop modern programs, which are much more relevant when students enter the job market.

What is instead absolutely clear is the fact that Syria will need more and more economic resources devoted towards its educational system and, as such, Syria will have to divert towards the its educational system economic resources one time allocated to other areas. But it is true that if a country in today’s world wants to develop, it requires an ever-improving educational system.