Posted by Joshua on Saturday, July 14th, 2007
This article was published by Forward, Sami Moubayed's new English language magazine.
Syria’s Private Universities
By Joshua Landis , July 2007
Forward, Damascus, Syria
My first impression of Kalamoon University was that is was a cross between the Wild West and a small, tidy college campus familiar to anyone schooled in the United States. As we drove onto the Kalamoon campus in Deir Attiyeh, a town an hour north of Syria's capital, the small dust-devils kicked up by the winds that sweep along the Damascus-Homs highway died away. The grand entrance into the university was dotted with handsome new trees; its median was covered with a thick bed of green grass, newly mowed and vigorous, despite the brilliant and scorching sun of the Syrian badia.
Professor Sami Moubayed, my host, leaned toward the windshield of his car and excitedly began pointing out each of the new buildings. To the left was a string of neatly painted dormitories, each four stories high. To the right began the administrative and classroom buildings. Our car stopped at a well tended quadrangle; workers were watering rose bushes and splotches of new flowers that seemed to have been planted only yesterday. In the distance several new buildings were under construction, accompanied by a shiny white mosque, the minarets of which had yet to be capped with their pointed tops.
“Here we are,” Sami announced with pride. Students were streaming across the courtyard to get to their 8:00 a.m. classes. “Of all the reforms begun by President Bashar,” Sami proposed, “the private universities are the most important and successful. They will change Syria." He added, “I love teaching here. The students are eager and many are excellent, all the same, when students arrive, their level of English is very low,” he said shaking his head. “Language training is one of our biggest challenges. Syrians used to be known for their language skills, but the nationalization of foreign schools in the 1960s and the Arabization of the curriculum wiped this out,” he explained, slicing through the air with his hand for extra emphasis. “We have a lot of catching up to do.”
Turning to the future, Sami concluded, “The best thing is that I can teach what I want.” In his class on Syrian history, Professor Moubayed has reintroduced whole hunks of Syria’s past that have been neglected in the state curriculum – in particular the years of nationalist struggle against the French and the free-wheeling first years of independence, when Syria was the most democratic country in the Arab World and one of the most unsettled. “Sorting out our own history is the key to getting the future right,” Sami philosophized. Although only a few years past his thirtieth birthday, Sami, who did his undergraduate work at teh American University in Beirut and Ph.D. at Exeter University in Britain, has already published three important books on Syrian history and written hundreds of newspaper articles. Before walking into his class, Sami turned to me and said, “I could be making a lot more money working in the Gulf, but I have chosen to stay here in my country. My country needs me. There is so much we have to do.” This mix of missionary zeal and national pride is a sentiment I encountered many times in my conversations with teachers and administrators at Syria’s private universities.
When President Bashar al-Assad first came to power in 2000 at the age of 34, he announced to his countrymen that he would modernize Syria and open it up to the world. In 2003, Kalamoon University laid its first stone. The next year, it opened its doors to freshmen, and this year, it will graduate its first class of roughly 60 students out of a total of 3,000 enrolled. Eight private universities have sprung up in the last four years. Only this month, another ten universities were licensed by presidential decree, a mix of private and public institutions. Despite the emerging importance of private schooling, higher education in Syria is dominated by five established state universities, situated in Syria’s largest cities. 250,000 of the 380,000 students enrolled in higher education in Syria attend the state universities; an additional 100,000 are enrolled in what is called “open education” that is dominated by virtual universities, offering courses on the internet. A mere 6,000 students are enrolled in the private universities, but that statistic is a year old and outdated. Today’s number is probably closer to 8,000 or 9,000.
Sami led me through the handsome main building of Kalamoon into his class, where some twelve students greeted him. Classes at the private universities rarely exceed 25 to 30 students, many are much smaller. For the first ten minutes, Sami consulted with his students about their final research papers and profited from my visit to send several to me for advice. One bright you woman, writing about the breakdown of the Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations in 1990, asked me about sources she could use; another had the beginnings of the paper she was writing about the nature of the Iranian-Syria alliance and wasn’t sure how best to organize it.
It was immediately clear how limited the sources available to the students were. College libraries are in their infancy and have few books. The Assad Library in Damascus is the only good library available, but it is an hour from Kalamoon and its books cannot be borrowed. Most student research is done online. In a later discussion, I was told that the cost of building a research library is so prohibitive that the private colleges plan to depend on web-based sources. They are planning to restrict their journal subscriptions to those available on line. Getting access to on-line books is a much bigger problem. Google’s project to scan all un-copyrighted books and make them available on-line will undoubtedly have a enormous impact on countries such as Syria.
I was struck by the revolutionary implications of the new universities as I answered the students’ questions and gave what helpful pointers I could. The contrast between the education at Syria’s public and private universities is stark. The new universities, have handsome campuses, small classes, and accessible teachers; most importantly, they are designed to teach critical thinking.
As one of the first Fulbright students to Syria, I attended the University of Damascus in 1981-1982, where I hardly ever witnessed a student consult with a professor. As a rule, students at the state universities have no contact with their professors. Many classes have 300 to 500 students enrolled in them. The students cannot all fit into the lecture halls; many are forced to stand outside the classroom doors in the hope of hearing lectures, others don’t attend classes at all, coming to the university only at exam time. The exams are largely based on memorizing. Students are used to regurgitating the textbook used in the class or the professor’s lectures, which can readily be bought in the form of Xeroxed pamphlets at the end of the semester.
The Syrian higher education system is in tatters. At independence, Damascus University had a reputation as an excellent university and an elite institution. The city’s illustrious families had nurtured its growth since its founding in 1908, populated it with their children, and taught in it. By the 1950s, it enrolled some 5,000 students. Twenty-five years later it had expanded fourteen times. When I arrived in 1981, the student body was above 70,000. The Baath Party decrees of the 1960s, guaranteeing every student who passed the national baccalaureate exam a spot at university, had flattened the universities. Even if well intentioned, the socialist laws resulted in such rapid expansion that quality could not be maintained and facilities burst at the seams. Today, teachers’ salaries at the state universities hover around $200 a month. Professors have neither the possibility nor incentive to engage any but their very best students. Drop out rates are high. Only 2,100 students are sent abroad on scholarships a year and the state has allocated a trifling annual budget of $3.8 million for academic research.
By contrast, Kalamoon pays its professors about $1,440 for a three-hour, 16 week course. If a professor teaches three courses a semester for two semesters, the pay works out to roughly $700 a month over twelve months. If he teaches five courses, as some do, he will earn over $1,200 a month or five times as much as a professor at a public institution. Needless to say, private universities have hired away many of their best professors from the public sector. The competition between private universities is also fierce. When I took a tour of the Arab European University, another excellent private university that teaches in English and which is situated half an hour south of Damascus, I was surprised to find myself in a group of three other foreign academics. I soon discovered that they taught at other private institutions. AEU was enticing them to come start new departments it plans to open in the fall.
When Bashar al-Assad became president, the word quickly began to circulate that he had authorized lists of new and talented professionals to be draw up so they could be recruited into the state bureaucracies to jump start reforms. In 2004, he told Flynt Leverett, who interviewed the President for his book, Inheriting Syria, that one of the country’s greatest problems was that it lacked professional cadres. He explained that the “Old Guard,” which many analysts complained about as the source of Syria’s immobilization, was not simply a handful of powerful people at the top of the regime, rather, it was the thousands of functionaries who populated the state bureaucracy, lacked adequate qualifications, and didn’t know how to change. To many Syrians, such provocative statements, were upsetting; to others, they were a challenge. Reforming the public universities to produce creative problem solvers will take decades. In the mean time, the new private universities present a clear work-around. Although they will never replace public education, they are carving out a new path for Syrian education.
Just as importantly, many of country’s talented students are staying in Syria to get their education. In the post 9-11 Middle East and due to the deterioration in Syrian relations with Lebanon, Syrian parents are increasingly hesitant to send their children abroad. The American University in Beirut enrolled some 300 Syrian students in 2005. That number has fallen. Today, Syrian parents with the means to send their children abroad are increasingly choosing to keep them at home, thanks to the private universities. Syrian admission fees are low compared to universities in Lebanon or Jordan. It costs about 80,000 Syrian pounds a semester, or $1,600, to attend Kalamoon University. AUB admission fees are around $17,000 a year, making it almost five times more expensive.
Other than students of the elite and upper middle class, the universities are attracting the children of Syrians who work in the Gulf or further a field. For expatriates who want their children to remain connected to Syria, and yet receive a good education and training in English, the new universities are becoming a viable option. They are also attracting students from neighboring countries, in particular Jordan, Lebanon, and, of course, Iraq. Over 40,000 Iraqis get their higher education in Syria, a number that will only increase with the refugees in Syria. Among the new universities is the Iraqi University, which is completely staffed by Iraqi professors. Although it only opened two years ago, it enrolls over a 1,000 students and is expanding at a break-neck pace. Syria’s new universities have already begun to stem the brain-drain that has drawn much of the country’s talent abroad. They are also attracting foreign students to Syria.
I concluded my visit to Kalamoon by talking to Dr. Amal Yazaji, the Dean of the faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy, about establishing an educational exchange program between her school and the University of Oklahoma, where I teach. She was enthusiastic and immediately set about getting me an appointment with Salim Dabool, the founder of the University and Deputy Chair of the Board. At the Arab European University, I was able to sign a preliminary exchange agreement in one day. Usahma Darrah, the charming and multi-lingual Assistant to AEU’s President, Abdul Ghani Maa Bared, took me to visit his campus two days after I had been to Kalamoon. It too has a neatly laid out and attractive campus. It’s most recent building, finished in black and white marble, was built in six months. All the classrooms are equipped with multi-media technology. Three new departments are due to come on line this fall, a French department, international relations, and an Arabic Language Center for teaching foreigners.
After a sumptuous lunch, President Maa Bared, turned to me and asked about the nature of the exchange program I wished to establish. After half an hour of discussion, he said, “Yes, let us sign this agreement now,” and asked his secretary to draw up to proper documents. As we shook hands following the signing, he asked me, “When do you think we can begin? We have many students to educate and must help make relations between our countries better.” He smiled and, like a director urging on his cast, said, “Let’s get this show on the road.”