Funding is a particular challenge for Portugal’s Global Platform for Syrian Students, an organization founded in 2013 and chaired by Portugal’s former president, Jorge Sampaio. “One of the most difficult things is to make people understand that higher education in a context of [wartime] emergencies is not a luxury but one of the most strategic investments,” wrote Sampaio’s diplomatic advisor, Helena Barroco, via email. “Who will rebuild a destroyed country? Who will be the next generation of leaders if you do not avoid creating a lost generation of university graduates?” These arguments sometimes fail to resonate with potential funders, she said, noting the large amount of money beyond tuition wavers needed to get a student from a refugee camp to campus housing. “We have 700 places offered in universities with tuition-fees waivers (partial or full waivers),” she explained, “and we are not yet able to allocate them to students because of a funding gap.”
Even with the funding gap, the Global Platform, which works primarily with Portuguese universities and now partners with IIE, will help place 150 Syrian students this year—up by 50 from 2014—and plans to start working with medical students in 2016. But Barroco said the organization could have done even more had a mechanism existed to do its work before the Syrian conflict started. “You waste a lot of time,” she wrote, in starting up a new organization at dire moments and having to fundraise, contact universities, and reach out to students all at once. “What you need is a rapid-response mechanism for higher education in emergencies that is ready to act each time there is a crisis,” she said, ideally a global consortium of universities with an international funding base that can work closely with governments to sort out visa issues.
If there’s any organization close to that on the national level, it’s probably the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), a government agency. No stranger to the academic crisis-response scene—public universities in Germany offered 30 spots to Gulf Coast students after Katrina—the German government in 2014 funded DAAD’s proposal for a mammoth effort to bring “elite” Syrian students into the country’s academic system for both a full university education and an unapologetic immersion course in German civic values. “We said, OK, these people are going to be trained in Germany not just as engineers or in the sciences, but with additional modules,” said Christian Hühlshörster, DAAD’s North Africa, Middle East, and Gulf Region division head. “Civil governance, society, how democracy works according to our standards, how you organize the relationship between religion and politics. These people, hopefully when they have a chance to go back to Syria, they will take that back.”
DAAD received “about 5,000 applications,” according to Hühlshörster, and sent 30 professors to its field offices in Amman, Istanbul, Beirut, Erbil, and Cairo to conduct 500 personal interviews for a total of 200 scholarships, complete with living expenses, which were adjusted for students with spouses or children. The admitted students were also enrolled in full-time, intensive German classes over the summer (candidates only needed to have a working knowledge of either German or English for the interview), and in the additional modules mentioned by Hühlshörster. The total value of the awarded scholarships, according to Hühlshörster, was about €16 million—around 11 times the estimated £1 million value of what CARA, a private charity, and its university partners together gave out in fee waivers and in-kind support in 2014 to all academics, both Syrian and otherwise. DAAD covers everything but tuition waivers (which, given that the universities are publicly funded as well, is just a matter of a different government agency footing the bill). Separately, the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia has funded 21 scholarships for Syrians, and the state of Baden-Württemberg 50.