Syria is facing an education crisis. A rising — and young — population is stretching the facilities, while rapidly changing demands of the domestic job market, notably English and IT skills, are outpacing university reforms.
A demographic youth bubble is still passing through higher education while regional instability has added long-standing and more recent refugees to those placing demand on the system.
"This is one of the most stressed education systems in the world," said an education consultant based in Syria, who has worked on education systems all over the world and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Those stresses include increasing numbers of students and a lack of capacity, a lack of international competition owing to outdated curricula and teaching standards and a lack of connection between the curricula and the labor market demands. There is also the bad use of financial resources and the psychological stress caused by rigid secondary school exams which determine university entry.
In the past, Damascus University was renowned around the Arab world for the quality of its education. Students came from abroad to study there.
But with 60 percent of Syria's population under the age of 25, overcrowding is now a perennial problem. With over 120,000 students at Damascus University (another 60,000 follow the open learning program), classes in some faculties are so large that often students are unable to attend lectures, and tests often have to take the form of multiple choice.
"It is impossible to talk to the lecturer or have any time to solve issues," said one student who asked not to be named. Another, from abroad, said she believed she could have got a better education at home.
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More directly affecting the quality of the education is the teaching of unrevised content and skills. The assessment of the courses are determined by individual teachers with little quality control. Many of the courses rely on one textbook which is often outdated.
In addition, the majority of the teachers had Soviet-style training and are not equipped for modern education methods, according to a study on Syria by Bahram Bekhradnia, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, based in the U.K.
It is affecting graduate's employment and further education opportunities — not just internationally but at home where new modern and international companies are demanding an increasingly standardized list of skills.
These include English and IT as well as general ability for teamwork and communication. While there is an effort to introduce these skills, most students at public universities graduate without proficiency.
"It is hard to find the skills we need," said the owner of a large confectionery company in Damascus. "We take graduates and train them ourselves."
The government is making ongoing efforts to reform the curricula, implement controls on quality, improve linkages with the market, modify the admissions system, introduce credit systems and improve planning.
But making changes to the large and resistant public system will be difficult, education experts say. New students will not be affected by these improvements.
A more immediate solution has been the advent of private universities and schools.
In 2001 the law was changed to allow private entities in the education sector. Since then private provision has multiplied. There are now 18 private universities in addition to six public ones (including one open learning university).
Most of the private universities are by law smaller (with a maximum of up to 10,000 students each) and focus on just a handful of faculties — often the most oversubscribed ones at the public universities, such as medicine and pharmacy.
Dr. Asaad Lotfi, the president of Kalamoon University, the first private university to open, located between Damascus and Homs, is confident that private universities are helping improve Syria's education sector.
The facilities are modern and the improved teaching methods are changing the educational mentality, he said.
Kalamoon boasts the largest university library in Syria and is now building a teaching hospital on site.
"We are changing the teaching methods by having classes with a maximum of 40 students; they are interactive and rely on a range of materials," Lotfi said. "We are also using the credit system to align ourselves with educational institutions outside of Syria."
Credits are one measure aimed at giving Syrians a better chance of gaining grants for further study abroad. English is another. Kalamoon, like other private universities such as the Arab International University, teach at least some of their classes in English.
"This is a major advantage," said Thomas Teuscher, a German academic who has taught at both Damascus and the Arab International Universities. "To access the most up-to-date articles and research, Arabic is not enough, unfortunately."
Lotfi believes that the addition of the private sector doesn't just help those students who enter it, but will pull up the level of education across the higher sector.
"There is competition now," he said. "Students can choose, and this puts pressure on the public sector to improve their standards. We can also share our experience and change the overall mentality here."
But others are less confident, pointing to several reasons why private universities may not offer all they believe they can.
The universities themselves criticize the rules and regulations which they view as burdensome. Everything from their location (they must be out of town to improve educational coverage) to their learning materials is subject to rules and regulations.
The cost, too, is prohibitive for many students. Fees of up to $12,000 per year — compared to as little as $20 in the public sector — rule out the majority of the population.
Some believe the educational quality is not high enough to merit the fees. With first intakes of students being in 2003, there have been few graduates to test it out.
"The private universities have only their own quality control measures and I do not believe they are significantly better than the public ones," Teuscher said.
"Of course they have small class sizes giving better interaction but most of the teachers are taken from the public sector, and the programs are often copied and pasted."
In addition students have other incentives to enter public universities.
"Students want to go to the public system for the connections," said the education consultant.
"Here, what counts is the degree itself and who you know. Students know the easiest and quickest way of obtaining that: public university."