After a campaign by the National Union of Syrian Students and in line with government digitisation trends, the Ministry of Higher Education and the University of Damascus announced on September 20 that they had launched a mobile application named “Sakn,” or “Housing”. The app aims to facilitate the electronic registration of students for university accommodation and to enable online payment of accommodation fees.
The government digitisation trends work – albeit still modest – is the culmination of years of effort to automate specific processes as part of an e-government plan launched two decades ago alongside the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). According to the program, 100 percent of Syria’s main government services should now be available electronically. However, for various reasons, including the past decade of war, little progress has been made toward that goal.
According to the semi-official Al-Watan newspaper, Sakn results from a collaboration between telecoms company Syriatel and the Sakn digital platform. Students can now register for the academic year 2023-2024 housing through the Sakn platform or the mobile app. The Sakn platform, a website affiliated with the National Union of Syrian Students, was designed by Engineer Ali Saleh, a participant in the Business Opportunity Forum, an event sponsored by the National Union of Syrian Students and the Syria Trust for Development.
Syriatel said in a statement on September 20 that accommodation fees paid through the Sakn app would be processed using the Syriatel Cash electronic service.
Law No. 29 of 2022 converted university campuses into independent public entities financially and administratively. This move aims to provide student accommodation, maintain, refurbish, construct new housing units, manage facilities, and capitalise on them. According to Law No. 29, each governorate with a university governed by the Universities Regulation Law No. 6 of 2006 and its amendments will establish an administrative public entity. These new entities will own all lands, buildings, facilities, kiosks, clubs, restaurants, theatres, furniture, equipment, machinery, and tools, either existing or contracted.
The public entity’s board of directors will be led by a director-general appointed by the prime minister and include the university’s president, vice-president for student affairs, the general manager of the public entity, their assistant, and a representative from the National Union of Syrian Students.
Law No. 29 stipulates that these entities must have at least three housing units. The largest and oldest is Damascus University City, with 27 housing units across three complexes: Mazzeh, Tabaleh, and Barzeh. Aleppo University has 20 housing units, Al-Baath University in Homs has 12, and Tishreen University in Lattakia has 14. There are 86 housing units across Syrian universities, housing around 100,000 students.
Law No. 29 has given the National Union of Syrian Students a legal role in the boards of the university housing facilities. The Union, affiliated with the ruling Baath Party, monopolises political and organisational activity amongst Syrian university students. Founded in 1963, the Union effectively grants security clearance on student accommodation applications. Their assessments of these applications are based solely on security databases shared with security agencies. They are supplemented by their network of informants among students and staff in universities and university cities. Additionally, the Union has been involved in trading and selling university accommodation receipts and controlling and capitalising on university housing facilities.
Since 2011, the National Union has played a security role in all university cities and student housing units in Syria, resulting in the arrest of students handed over to Syrian security forces. The Union also participated in forming pro-regime military militias, fighting on various fronts against the opposition.
The university accommodation platform project has faced widespread criticism from students due to its reliance on an electronic application. This comes when the country is experiencing significant power rationing and poor service from communication and internet networks. Many students fear any delay in registering through the platform will cost them their housing.
University housing management requires students who wish to live in university units and housing to be residents of areas at least 40 kilometres away from campus. Additionally, they should not have faced disciplinary actions or failed their courses. However, the administration exempted students who have deceased or missing family members from the regime forces and security apparatus from the latter condition.
With the launch of Sakn, the Ministry of Higher Education increased the annual housing allowance from SYP 22,000 to 88,000. In 2021, the ministry had raised the housing allowance from SYP 3,000 to 22,000. The ministry justifies this increase by using the funds to improve services and provide better living conditions for students. University housing authorities receive 50 percent of the initial payment, with the remaining 50 percent going to the state’s public treasury.
However, the war since 2011 has exacerbated the poor state of university housing units, which now desperately need refurbishment. Amidst chaos and overcrowding, often a single room houses more than six students, and in some cases, as many as nine. The Ministry of Education’s reduced expenditure on refurbishing housing units has led to the degradation of its infrastructure, including electricity and sewage networks, a complete lack of heating, declining cleanliness standards, and a shortage of beds, tables, and chairs. Many residents of these units now sleep on the floor.
Several university housing entities had previously cancelled plans to renovate or rehabilitate their buildings. This is mainly due to the limited budget for such tasks and contractors’ reluctance to enter into contracts with official entities. This hesitation comes from the official entities’ delay in disbursing financial dues to their contractors, coupled with the continuous decline in the Syrian pound exchange rate, which diminishes the value of these dues over time.