Private Universities Thrive Despite Credibility Concerns

Critics point to a lack of quality control, but many students and teachers see benefits of new institutions.

Private Universities Thrive Despite Credibility Concerns

Critics point to a lack of quality control, but many students and teachers see benefits of new institutions.

Tuesday, 10 March, 2009
Arwa Eissa wanted to attend a university that took learning beyond the classroom.

At the private Marine Academy of Science and Technology in Latakia he found just that – for a steep price.

“I could have gone to Damascus university but I was desperate to travel and get hands on experience at sea – where I want to make my career,” he said.

“I am so thankful my parents were able to pay the expensive tuition. When I look at friends who are studying the same subjects at state schools, I see that they are stuck in the classroom reading books about things I’ve seen with my own eyes.”

Since President Bashar al-Assad authorised the creation of private universities in 2001 to decrease the burden on Syria’s four state-run institutions, 22 of the former have opened their doors and another dozen are awaiting authorisation.

With the four state colleges full to overflowing – Damascus university alone has more than 120,000 students – private institutions are increasingly providing an alternative for wealthy families able to pay the extra cost.

A state-funded education is mostly free of charge for students who score highly enough on their college entrance exam to quality for a specific programme. By contrast, annual tuition fees at private universities can fall anywhere between 3,000 to 10,000 US dollars.

But nine years after their inception, private universities – which are unregulated – still face criticism from some who question their academic standards.

There are also fears that top faculty members are being lured away from state schools to teach at private universities which, because they charge students, are able to pay higher salaries.

Economics lecturer Dr Ibrahim Muhammed of Tishreen university in Latakia said a teacher can expect between 400 and 800 dollars at a state-run university. Private universities offer at least twice as much, enabling them to attract top academics.

The University of Kalamoon in Der Atia, for example, pays lecturers more than 3,000 dollars a month.

Some working for state universities say they have to take on extra work to make ends meet.

“I felt compelled to find another job in addition to my position at Tishreen university because of the low wages,” said Dr Bassam Hamoud, an engineering lecturer.

“Private universities pay much better, but I kept my job with Tishreen as well because it offers a pension after retirement.”

In addition to higher wages, teachers are increasingly drawn to private schools because they provide smaller classes, modern facilities and a broader curriculum, said Dr Hazim Ali, a mechanical engineering lecturer at Damascus and Kalamoon universities.

“There is great freedom for students and lecturers at these universities,” he said. “The Syrian government does not interfere in the curricula or the assigning of textbooks.”

But critics warn that many private universities are business ventures first and educational institutions second.

“Look at Lebanon and Jordan where many private universities have turned into businesses rather than quality educational institutions,” said German researcher Andrea Morris.

“More resources are needed for Syria’s state universities so they can continue to be the backbone of higher education in the country.

“Private universities should complement these state universities but standards must be set, otherwise quality is sacrificed.”

She suggested increasing cooperation between private universities and well-regarded European institutions.

Kalamoon university is one of those institutions leading the way. It has a cooperation agreement with Glamorgan university in the United Kingdom, which helps its Syrian partner with quality assurance and other technical matters.

Meanwhile, the German-Syrian university cooperates with the University of Otto-Von-Guericke Magdeburg in Germany. It was established according to German standards and is accredited by that country’s institutions.

“Sadly, these institutions are the exception, not the rule,” said Morris.

“Some private schools like Kalamoon and Al-Wadi university in Homs are highly reputable.

“But there have been quite a few controversies where private schools have inflated their ties to European institutions and, essentially, hand out degrees that are close to worthless.”

Such controversies have put some students off enrolling in private institutions.

Shakib Agha did not receive high enough marks on his high school examinations to enroll in a state programme.

Yet in spite of an offer from his parents to pay for his education at a private school, Agha said he would retake his exams and reapply to state universities.

“I keep hearing about these scandals at private universities where they offer degrees that are not recognised in the real world,” he said.

“State universities may have fewer resources and more crowded classrooms, but they have a strong reputation and that is what I am looking for in a school.”

Basim Nasir said he left the private Al-Mamoun university in Aleppo after reports emerged that it had falsely claimed to have affiliations with European and American institutions in order to attract students.

Farouq Diab, who graduated from Al-Mamoun last year, said he has been unable to find a job because of questions about the validity of his degree.

“I have given all I have to get my education and still I have not found work,” he said.

“In spite of the modern curriculum, some private universities just lack credibility.”

Regardless of the reputation of private universities in Syria, the benefits continue to outweigh the costs for many wealthy students whose high school marks were too low to qualify for a state education

“I have long aspired to become a pharmacist, but I did not qualify for the pharmacy programme at Damascus university,” said Urwa Suleiman.

Instead, he enrolled in Al-Qudmous in Tartous province.

“I do not care where I get my degree. What matters is achieving the dream of a little boy who wanted to stand behind a counter and sell medicine,” he said.
Syria, Jordan
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