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Access to education holds great potential for refugees, especially women. Dr Sezer Ş. Komsuoğlu of the Turkish Council of Higher Education discusses what her country is doing to support Syrian women in higher education.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) underlines that we are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record. An unprecedented 68.5 million people around the world have been forced to leave their home countries. Among them are nearly 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.

Higher education holds great potential for refugees, as access is vital for their individual success and well-being, as well as for regional welfare, stability and security. In the face of pressing demands and growing inequalities in access to basic education, such access is still perceived as a luxury in a protracted refugee context and often neglected in the policies and provisions of host countries, international agencies and donors. In this context, women’s participation in higher education is a very important domain to be investigated and supported. Highly-educated female refugees have the potential to become leaders and role models both in their home and host communities. Furthermore, the key role of educated women in raising children is also undeniable.

Families with limited financial resources and security concerns may prioritise access to higher education for their sons due to economic and cultural reasons. Also, men are more likely to have the opportunity to pursue alternatives in other cities, while women’s access to higher education is often limited to opportunities in the cities where they reside due to security concerns and cultural reasons. This highlights the importance of access in the cities of residence. While higher education is a channel towards a career for women, and a chance to build their future, it is also an opportunity for socialisation, networking, and mobility.

Turkey has been witnessing a dense refugee inflow from Syria, as the biggest host country, since 2015. Today Turkey hosts more than 3.6 million Syrians. There are more than 1.7 million Syrian school-aged children and youth including those at higher education age. Turkey, with its international stakeholders, has already taken the necessary steps to increase enrolment rates, which are currently above the world average, in basic education for refugee Syrian children and youth (elementary school: 96.30%, middle school: 58.13%, high school: 26.38%).

As the main regulating body in higher education, the Council of Higher Education (CoHE) administers and plans policies related to higher education, including refugee students. Since the beginning of the crisis, the CoHE has been very active in facilitating Syrian students’ access to higher education, which is often neglected during refugee emergencies. Even before the prolonged nature of the crisis had become clear, the CoHE was working to facilitate and increase Syrian students’ access to and participation in the higher education system in Turkey. A fee waiver agreement for public universities and scholarship opportunities, primarily through “Turkey Scholarships”, help them to continue their education.

According to CoHE statistics, the number of enrolled Syrian students in Turkish higher education institutions, which was 14 747 for the 2016-2017 academic year, increased to 20 701 in 2017-2018, and is currently 27 606. Within this framework, higher education enrollment rates have reached 3.8% - this is higher than the world average which has been only 1% for the last three years.

This is important because war and forced migration affect dreams for the future. This is clear from the words of a young Syrian women, currently studying communications at İstanbul University: “I had a wonderful life before the war broke out in my country. I was studying English literature at university. I got married in my first year. Then the war broke out; when that happened our lives were ruined. I had to leave my family, my loved ones, my school and move out from my country, my homeland.”*

The ratio of Syrian students pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Turkey is 39% for women and 61% for men (CoHE Data, 2018). While the numbers are promising, further improvement is needed considering the critical nature of higher education for refugees. Additional support is required to increase the female participation rate in higher education at all levels.

In order to improve participation rates among Syrian women the following are essential: informative guidance during application and admission, support concerning recognition of previous credentials and language support. All higher education institutions need to work on ways in which we can widen their access to higher education.

Supporting Syrian women’s access to higher education is vital for all the roles they will play in building the future. This is key for them to participate in the decision-making processes and assume leadership roles in the societies they will live in. Furthermore, refugee girls’ belief in their own success, through the visibility of role models who have been successful despite all the challenges of migration and have managed to complete their higher education in the public sphere, must be supported. Finally, considering the harm done to the academic heritage of the Middle East, supporting access to graduate-level education has great importance for Syrian women’s future in academia.

*Quote taken from interviews conducted in the “CoHE Academic Heritage Project”.


Sezer Ş. Komsuoğlu
Council of Higher Education of Turkey

Dr Sezer Ş. Komsuoğlu is Chief Advisor to the President of Council of Higher Education of Turkey and heads the Council’s department of women studies. Dr Komsuoğlu is a neurologist and the former Rector of Kocaeli University. She is also a member of the EUA Research Policy Working Group. 

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