Wafic Said gave the keynote address at the 2nd annual conference of Jusoor in London on 19 October 2013.
Jusoor, which means “bridges”, is an NGO, founded in 2011 by young Syrian expatriates, which aims to harness the potential of Syrian expatriates to support the country’s development and help young Syrians realise their potential, in particular through scholarships and other initiatives in the education field. The conference looked at the problems of education, employment and civil society in the current situation of civil war in Syria and considered what could be done to help now and for the future.
Wafic Said chose to talk about higher education – a subject close to his heart. His father was Minister of Education in Syria, founding Syria’s first university and the Said Foundation’s Scholarship Programme has been running for almost 30 years. However, he questioned whether it was right to focus on higher education now “when people are under attack and dying, when a third of the population is displaced, when children are without food….” and concluded that in addition to humanitarian assistance it was important to consider what can be done to support higher education in Syria:
“We must try to give hope to our children and young people that they will not become a lost generation, and that they will have a role to play in building a new and better Syria. Higher education is all about hope. It gives young people the knowledge and confidence they need to get on in life and make a contribution to society. It allows those with disadvantaged backgrounds to overcome them. It provides the skilled labour that countries need to increase prosperity. It produces research that helps societies make progress in solving the problems we all face.”
Wafic Said went on to talk about higher education in Syria before the conflict started. He spoke about what had been achieved – hugely increased student numbers, gender parity, private universities, efforts (albeit largely unsuccessful) to improve curricula, a broader range of subjects in some universities – but pointed out that “quantity was achieved entirely at the expense of quality. You cannot massively grow higher education without a significant investment in it.”
He then considered the current situation:
“Our researchers have spoken to people around the country and in Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq and Europe. On the basis of their interviews, they have estimated that Syria’s student population has roughly halved and that perhaps around 180,000 young people who would have been attending university prior to the conflict are not…..
One way or another, we are witnessing the beginnings of the loss of a generation to higher education and the decline of Syria’s universities to even lower standards than those that came before. And this has serious implications for the rebuilding of a post-conflict Syria. Around 60% of Syria’s population is under 25. The cooperation of students and graduates will therefore be vital in securing a peaceful post-conflict transition and failing to acknowledge their needs in the midst of this conflict could well create very negative outcomes.”
The final part of Wafic Said’s address outlined some ideas for helping the enormous numbers of students now excluded from higher education:
“Part of the solution must lie in working with universities in the countries hosting refugees. To do this, we need much better information than we have. I am therefore planning to go to Jordan and Lebanon to seek support for an independent mapping exercise. This would achieve two things. On the one hand, it would assess the numbers of Syrian refugee students and academics in those countries, especially those in the camps with least access to higher education. It would also look at their academic disciplines and at the barriers they face to accessing higher education. On the other hand, it would identify universities in the region that could host Syrian students and academics and what is needed to help make this happen.
Another idea I have is what I am calling a Scholarships PLUS Programme. This would focus the Said Foundation’s existing scholarship programme on subjects that will be particularly important to meeting Syria’s immediate and long-term needs. For example, one of the greatest challenges to promoting stable government after war is building the rule of law. This is central to establishing public trust in the state – especially after years of distrust. Building high quality legal education programmes will be vital.
Another challenge will be to avoid the conflict trap – that is, that the experience of war within a state vastly increases the likelihood of further conflict. Overcoming trauma and coming to terms with coexistence between rival communities are critical to avoiding this trap. Higher education programmes that support the development of workers in the psychosocial field will be key. We are considering trying to cluster our scholars, our alumni, other members of the Syrian diaspora and other experts around subjects such as these so that they can work together to build capacity….
My third and final thought on how we could help relates to the long-term, to a vision for the future of Syria’s higher education that I am sure we all share. An immense effort will be needed after the conflict to rebuild higher education – an effort involving not only the Syrian state but also the international community. And the universities that emerge need to be radically different from those that came before. They must be safe places to which our academics can return. They must provide equal access to all Syrians regardless of their political or religious affiliation. They must be de-politicised so that students and academics can learn, teach and think freely and independently. We will need to see the rapid development of new curricula, especially in subjects vital to the reconstruction of the country, like Economics and Management. We will need strong links between academics in Syria and academics abroad who can provide a supportive community, including for research.
This is a huge and difficult agenda and will be one of many huge and difficult agendas – but it matters. Independent, neutral universities could be places where Syrians of all backgrounds can build trust, overcome grievance, and work together for a better Syria. It is a hard, but not impossible agenda if we all act as advocates and champions for it whenever we can.”
For the full text of Wafic Said’s speech please click here.