The closure of universities in areas outside regime control has left thousands of students without degrees or professional skills, which has prompted the local administration in these areas to set up educational institutions with the resources available. This was the case with the Free Idlib University, which opened in August 2015, three months after the Syrian opposition took control of the city.
The opening of the Free Idlib University came as a result of the opposition city administration’s created a provincial higher education administration, which included a number of academics from the university. This council took responsibility for the branches and buildings of Aleppo University located in Idlib, which did not have its own university.
Professor Suheib al-Jasim, a member of this council, told the Syrian Voice that “one of the things that helped with founding the university was reopening the colleges associated with the Aleppo University before the city was liberated, which provided us with a good place, as well as a number of professors and teachers in Idlib and other provinces who had left their positions in regime institutions.”
Al-Jasim added that “despite the great efforts expended, the institutes of the opposition controlled still cannot compete with those run by the Assad regime. They face a series of challenges, the largest being a lack of financial support to help improve the quality of the teaching, as well as outfitting and repairing the buildings, most of which were damaged by regime bombardment of the city. There is also the lack of labs and teaching supplies.”
The lack of financial support has meant that the university has had to charge tuition fees to students, a big step given that government universities were free for Syrian citizens. These fees range from an average of $150 a year for liberal arts and $200 for scientific departments. In 2015, the university had about 5,000 students.
There are 55 professors with doctorates working in the university, whereas when the regime the were only 16, according to al-Jasim.
The university does not discriminate on accepting students’ previous degrees, whether they were from regime-controlled universities or institutes in areas under opposition control. Registration is also open for students who were unable to finish their degrees at government universities.
According to one student at the University, Mohammed al-Ibrahim, “the university coming late is better than not coming at all.” Mohammed was previously a student in a medical institute specialized in anesthesiology, but he was unable to finish there as it was located in a regime controlled area because the route to his school in Lattakia was becoming dangerous.
According to al-Jasim, the University is attempting to open a medical college because of the need for more trained medical practitioners in opposition controlled areas. He also says that University officials are studying the possibility of opening other new institutes and colleges, including for electrical engineering, information technology, and physical therapy.
Getting recognition for degrees issued by the university is a problem for students, especially for students who choose to leave Syria. The local administration is looking for solutions, including issuing a decision acknowledging all degrees issued from institutions in opposition controlled areas. The university hopes for its degrees to be accepted abroad in the future.
Ahmed al-Khalaf, a high school student said that the University isn’t ideal, but there are no other options.
“I’m waiting for the results of my high school general exams, and my only choice is to apply to the Free Idlib University. Because I took the exams in an opposition controlled area, government universities won’t accept the results.
A UNICEF report noted that 60% of educational facilities in Idlib have been partially damaged or completely destroyed, and that in many cases they are being used as shelters for internally displaced families.