Across Lebanon and Jordan, many talented young people are desperate to study for a university qualification but face significant barriers. In this article, colleagues from King’s College London discuss a unique project that is helping displaced young Syrians to gain vital skills and access higher education.
“What I really want is to be able to go to university….” This is what we heard again and again from displaced Syrian youth in Lebanon and Jordan at the start of our project, PADILEIA (Partnership for Digital Learning and Increased Access), three years ago. As university graduates ourselves, we were not surprised: we were very aware of how university had transformed our own lives for the better.
Across Lebanon and Jordan, an estimated 76,000 Syrian young people aged 18 to 25 want to study for a university qualification but face significant barriers – such as recognition of prior learning, English language ability (a key requirement for regional universities), access to the internet, and disrupted schooling.
The PADILEIA project was conceived to tackle these barriers. Together, an unusual partnership of three universities (King’s College London, American University of Beirut and Al al-Bayt University in Jordan), one non-governmental organisation (Kiron Open Higher Education in Germany) and a private company (FutureLearn, based in the UK) are helping to support the higher educational needs of Syrian refugee students in Jordan and Lebanon via digital and blended learning. The project is also extending this support to disadvantaged local students in Lebanon and Jordan.
Accessing higher education
The PADILEIA project offers students the chance to take Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in subjects such as Business, Entrepreneurship and Healthcare. Designed by King’s College London academics, the MOOCs provide ‘taster’-style introductions to courses, and can accommodate unlimited numbers of students. There’s also an English language MOOC, to help students brush up their skills in readiness for university.
For students who want to dive deeper, the project offers eight-month Foundation degree courses, helping students to meet entrance requirements for universities in the region and abroad. Students are selected by interview, removing the need for past exam certificates, which many students are unable to provide due to school disruption. Alongside academic learning, students receive career counselling and mentoring on university and scholarship applications. Over the last two years, 47 of our Foundation course graduates earned scholarships and the courses received a 95% recommendation rate from participants. In total, 183 students have graduated since 2017, and another 240 students are projected to graduate by July 2021.
We also have over 5000 students studying on curated blended courses that are recognised by local universities and can be used as credit to transfer to these institutions.
Online and blended learning
PADILEIA courses are principally delivered online – students are able to study from home, which makes our offerings very flexible and accessible. We also provide face-to-face blended learning in our PADILEIA Campus, based in Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, enabling students to engage with the course in a group setting. Facilitators with subject knowledge guide students through the courses, and offer support on digital and English language skills.
This blended approach and online support mechanisms enabled our programmes to respond fast when the Covid-19 pandemic struck. We were able to quickly provide internet bundles and tablets for our students and to move all study programmes fully online, whilst maintaining student support. The facilitators knew their students well, so the transition was smooth and academic achievement hasn’t suffered.
As Ismail Ababneh, VP for Administration and Student Affairs at Al al-Bayt University highlights: “The training that our instructors received on online teaching within the PADILEIA project has helped us to move swiftly and at very short notice to online instruction at Al al-Bayt University in response to Covid-19.”
We don’t know what the future holds in terms of face-to-face instruction – but we have developed programmes that can be delivered during uncertain and challenging times, when conditions change very quickly. This is the reality anyway for displaced populations; they have seen their world change completely in a matter of days and so they are ready, yet again, to adapt, to work hard and fulfil their dreams, if supporting structures are in place.
For us at King’s, it has been a very clear lesson: programmes created to respond to displacement crises can be very useful indeed for other forms of disruption too, such as Covid-19, experienced by all of PADILEIA’s partners from Beirut to Berlin, from Mafraq to London. Even in the middle of a global pandemic, refugee students continue to wish to study and get a university degree. We hope to continue to contribute to this.