Refugee Commodification and Syrian Integration into Jordan’s Public Schools

Elizabeth Parker-Magyar, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

In 2016, Jordan’s Ministry of Education announced that the nation’s public schools would take unprecedented steps to open their doors to all Syrian refugee students. This decision drew international acclaim, even as the Jordan Compact it accompanied highlighted quintessential rent-seeking behavior in Jordan. This type of behavior dates back to the arrival of Palestinian refugees in the earliest days of Jordan’s independence (see Frost 2024). But while Jordan’s status as a refugee host has remained constant, Jordan’s policies toward Syrian refugees differ substantially from its responses to Palestinians. Looking at how education policies differ across refugee communities in Jordan allows for more straightforward consideration of how the “rentier concept” might “apply in the context of the regulation and governance of human mobilities” (Lynch and Tsourapas 2024). For instance, whereas over 100,000 Palestinian students in Jordan attend schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) decades after refugee arrival, Jordan sought international aid to integrate Syrians into schools run by the Ministry of Education. How have subnational, within-sector opportunities for rent extraction shaped Jordan’s education policies for Syria’s “Lost Generation”?

As other scholars in this volume note, Jordan is a key refugee rentier state in the Middle East. Among other groups, Jordan hosts large numbers of Palestinian refugees, who arrived following the Nakba in 1948 and after 1967, and most of whom are Jordanian citizens today. Jordan later hosted large numbers of Iraqis after 2003 in addition to smaller communities from countries including Yemen, Somalia, and Sudan. In recent years, the country has hosted between 600,000 and one million Syrians—such that Syrians constitute as many as one in 10 of the total population today.

The policies that structure Syrians’ access to Jordan’s public education system are the product of negotiations between Jordan’s leadership, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and major foreign donors like the United States (US) and the European Union. There has also been influence from the advocacy efforts of Syrian communities. While we lack visibility into the precise contours of negotiations over education policy, we can analyze policies in terms of their observable influence on opportunities for “refugee commodification” from Jordan as a hosting state (Freier, Micinski, and Tsourapas 2021, 2748). This essay does so firstly by contextualizing Syrian access to education amid Jordan’s responses to prior waves of refugee arrivals. For example, Syrians access education through “double-shifted” public schools, where Syrians generally attend the afternoon shift. While facilitating Syrian access to education, these education policies have ensured continued Ministry of Education control over international donor resources for Syrian education while providing Jordan with strong leverage to ensure future foreign aid flows.

Secondly, this contribution engages with what other scholars have described as “rentier mentalities” around the impact of Syrian refugees on Jordan’s education system. At the center of one rentier narrative is the notion that the arrival of Syrians has substantially and detrimentally impacted the quality of education for Jordanians. To do so, it leverages two novel data sources collected from Jordan’s Ministry of Education, alongside interviews with teachers, bureaucrats, aid policymakers, and the Syrian and Jordanian parents of schoolchildren. The data sources demonstrate the largely negligible effects of Syrian refugee arrival on two measurable indicators of public schools’ quality in areas where Syrians have enrolled in high numbers: non-Syrian enrollment in local public schools and pass–fail rates on the national exam known as the tawjihi. While the arrival of Syrian refugees generated national increases in the number of Jordanians attending a double-shifted school, this did not lead more non-Syrians to leave public education for local private schools, nor did non-Syrians in these areas begin to fail the tawjihi at higher rates.

A Longer Lens on Refugee Education in Jordan

As with other sectors of Jordanian service provision covered in this volume, modern negotiations over Syrian refugee education—and even education provision in Jordan, broadly—are inextricable from the regime’s historical negotiations with international donors and United Nations (UN) agencies, first UNRWA and then bodies like UNHCR and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Developed in the wake of the 1948 Nakba, UNRWA’s formation precedes the formation of UNHCR and the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees. UNRWA’s education provision came in response to Palestinians’ boycott of the agency’s first major initiative—a 1950s ‘Works’ scheme—alongside overwhelming demand for education (Abu Lughod 1973; Irfan 2021). Perhaps because UNRWA’s formation accompanied the explosion of primary education across Jordan (Kalisman 2017), education remains a large part of the organization’s remit in Jordan’s 10 refugee camps for Palestinian refugees.

UNRWA continues to shape education in Jordan. As of 2019, it operates an educational system for 120,000 primary school-aged students across 169 schools outside of the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education. Scholars often view UNRWA’s education of Palestinian refugees as a technocratic success (Khalidi 1997; Irfan 2021), supporting an educated generation of students that filled labor markets in the Gulf. However, the agency is also continuously accused of undermining or perpetuating Palestinian nationalism by Palestinian refugees themselves, Arab states, Israel, or the US (for an earlier treatment, see Husseini 2000). As a result, both the Palestinian communities reliant on the body and by extension the local Jordanian economy remain perilously exposed to the whims of international donors. For instance, the US first threatened to cut UNRWA funding in 1954 (Qato 2018, 28).

Relatively little has been written about how the Jordanian regime interacts with or shapes UNRWA. Scholars often note that the Jordanian government has been deeply wary of replicating the “parallel” system for education or health care in future crises (e.g., Davis et al. 2017, 17). While it applies the Jordanian curriculum, UNRWA hires staff almost exclusively from Jordan’s Palestinian refugee camps even today. [2] Researchers show that Palestinian staff frequently clash with the directives of the body’s international leadership and the Hashemite monarchy (Farah 2009). The teachers I interviewed across Jordan often describe the trade-offs of working in UNRWA versus Ministry of Education schools. For example, while the Ministry of Education offers more job security, UNRWA teachers receive higher monthly salaries.

The global refugee system itself (Barnett 2001; Feldman 2007; Husseini 2010) and humanitarian practices in refugee education (Dryden-Petersen 2011) had evolved substantially by the time hundreds of thousands of Iraqis arrived in Jordan following the US invasion in 2003. When Iraqi refugees arrived, the Jordanian government explicitly pushed a newer model of “temporary absorption.” While Palestinian refugees (see Frost 2024) and their descendants now make up a majority of Jordan’s population, UNHCR operates under an agreement that refugees may no longer permanently settle in Jordan even as they are able to access public services and legal protection (Davis et al. 2017, 17–8). In exchange, the Jordanian government now sought direct budgetary support from donors to support the public services refugees would have access to alongside Jordanians (Davis et al. 2017, 17). However, it took “substantial advocacy by UNHCR and pressure to uphold the 1989 Convention of the Rights of the Child” for Jordanian schools to open to Iraqi refugees by royal decree in 2007 (Dryden-Peterson 2011, 45; Davis et al. 2017, 17). Before the decree, Iraqis had little access to Jordan’s education system, which fueled fears that would echo years later when advocates began warning of a generation of Syrian students deprived of formal education.

As part of that 2007 advocacy, UNHCR committed to supporting the Ministry of Education directly to “hire and pay salaries for 2,000 additional teachers and rehabilitated [sic] of 30 classrooms with furniture and

equipment” (45). This was despite wildly disparate estimates on the number of Iraqi refugees actually in Jordan. The European Union also funded school fees for Iraqis. By then, best practice conceptualized education for refugees as “the strengthening of education systems” and the integration of refugee students in national school systems (Dryden-Peterson 2011, 47), highlighting the difficulties of disentangling technocratic demands in relation to rentier policymaking. UNHCR staff were charged with “cultivating institutional and interpersonal relationships” with national ministries to facilitate the inclusion of refugee communities within national education systems.

Although this is rarely tied to reactions to the contemporary Syrian refugee response in Europe (Micinski and Norman 2024), Jordan’s hosting of Iraqi refugees followed politicized negotiations over the country’s logistical support for the US invasion of Iraq. As a result, journalist Nicholas Seeley questioned “how well, or even whether” the Jordanian public schools constructed with money earmarked for Iraqi refugee students “served the target [Iraqi] population’ (Seeley 2010). Like the aid to Syrians that would follow, it would remain unclear whether the education programming reflected “a hijacking” or a “a savvy political response to an already politicized aid program” that transferred “funds from an issue important to foreign donors to long-term local challenges” in Jordanian development, in the words of Nicholas Seeley at the time (Ibid.).

Learning Amid Syrian Refugee Arrival

When large numbers of Syrian refugees arrived in Jordan in 2012 and 2013, these prior interactions informed negotiations over the entry of Syrian students into the country’s national public school system. [3] High-level negotiations between European and Jordanian political figures and the World Bank (not UN service providers nor Syrian refugees themselves) produced the 2016 Global Compact. The Compact allowed Syrians the right to straightforward entry into Jordan’s public school system. [4] The terms of the agreement called for Jordan to rapidly expand enrollment of Syrians in the 2016 to 2017 school year and expand work permits available to Syrians, in exchange for benefits like increased direct budgetary support to the Jordanian government and preferential trade agreements with Europe (Barbelet et al. 2018). Since the agreement, Syrian refugee enrollment in Jordanian primary schools has far exceeded international benchmarks for enrollment of refugee children globally.v

The status quo subsequently developed of integrating Syrians especially into double-shift schools. Since 2016, according to Ministry of Education data, approximately 70% of Syrian students have attended the afternoon shift of a double-shifted school. This statistic includes schools in the al-Za‘tari camp, where approximately 20% of Jordan’s Syrian community currently resides and where all schools operate in two shifts. As of the 2022 to 2023 school year, 72.2% out of 161,000 enrolled Syrians in Jordan attended a double-shifted school.

Jordan’s Ministry of Education had previously used double shifting, which is a common education practice globally, to reduce overcrowding. Before the arrival of Syrian refugees, the government explicitly identified limiting double shifting as a key indicator of progress in successive reform plans (Francis 2015). Teachers, parents, and students in double-shifted schools cite frequent concerns around shortening the school day by one hour and trouble maintaining school cleanliness.vi In Jordan, little has been written about the specific policy mechanics behind when schools are double-shifted, and when new schools are constructed to accommodate growing populations. Interlocutors at the Ministry of Education told me that the policy currently takes effect once the number of Syrians in a school or a community reaches 100 students, with funding for the second shift directly supported by international donors.

Ten years after Syrian refugee arrival, the continued use of double-shifted schools can be seen as facilitating refugee commodification while continuing to pursue a policy of temporary accommodation.

The double-shifting policy allows resources—mainly for school construction and teacher hiring—to be channeled through the Ministry of Education while limiting Syrian integration into Jordanian communities. Of course, foreign donors have long financed Jordanian public schools. Though no centralized data repository exists to specify which agencies have funded specific public schools in Jordan, activists and public sector reformers suggest that foreign donors have financed every newly constructed school in Jordan for decades. In my visits to dozens of schools across the country, principals articulated nuanced views on which foreign aid agencies—including the US, Germany, and South Korea—provided the best school construction programming. For instance, two principals separately lauded the US Agency for International Development (USAID) for hiring staffers to oversee building management for five years after the construction of a building—even as they lamented that programming would improve if USAID hired and directed those staff members in perpetuity. Because Syrian students attend an afternoon shift rather than attending their own schools or attending schools alongside Jordanians, Jordanians in these communities also benefit directly from newly constructed facilities in areas with high levels of Syrian enrollment. In my visits to double-shifted schools, teachers working in the second shift noted that Syrian students often do not themselves gain access to some of the benefits of newly constructed schools, especially science and computer labs.

Second, the Ministry of Education retains control over donor-financed teacher hiring for double-shift schools. Teaching is a substantial source of employment in areas with high levels of refugee resettlement. As Syrian teachers themselves remain barred from accessing this employment, the teachers in schools outside of refugee camps are Jordanian—a sharp distinction compared with UNRWA’s programming in Palestinian refugee camps. The student–teacher ratio in Jordan has remained fixed at approximately 16:1 since 2010, according to Ministry of Education data through 2023 and previously published figures (World Bank 2016, 21). Whereas public school teacher hiring for non-Syrian schools occurs centrally at the Civil Service Bureau, individual education directorates control hiring of approximately 20,000 additional teachers to staff those in second shifts.vii While news stories periodically reference scandals related to favoritism in hiring for those positions,viii second-shift teachers work with the same labor rights as substitute teachers, who receive lower salaries and more limited access to health care and have more limited job security than their full-time counterparts in the morning shifts. These jobs nevertheless remain highly sought after, especially for women in rural areas where employment opportunities remain limited.

Donors continue to finance these teachers’ salaries, but the second-shift system and limited tenure security for teachers place Jordan in a strong, long-term negotiating position to ensure continued international donor financing. In addition to limiting de facto integration into Jordanian communities, double-shifting policies allow Jordan to continue making its hosting policies visible in international negotiations and during visits by foreign donors. As suggested by Arar (2024), placing Syrians in a second, afternoon shift facilitates the key processes of rendering “Jordan’s hosting capacity legible to the international community,” who may be less likely to differentiate between Syrian and Jordanian students attending integrated classrooms.ix As education scholars have noted, Syrians participating in a second shift are also rendered more visibly Syrian to the host community, which can lead to increased bullying and harassment.x

As Jordan experienced after previous refugee arrivals, donor funding for Syrian refugees is now drying up a decade into the conflict. Still, UNHCR resettlement of Syrians outside of Jordan remains extremely limited,xi and only 0.8% of Syrians in Jordan expressed an intention to return home in the next 12 months in a recent survey.xii In 2023, the UN World Food Programme cut the value of monthly assistance to Syrians in refugee camps by over 50%. However, Jordan educates the majority of Syrians within Ministry of Education infrastructure, even as international donors foot the bill. Therefore, Jordan remains capable of shifting blame onto those donors if Syrians’ access to quality education suffers—for instance, if second-

shifted schools close due to an absence of funding. UNHCR’s representative to Jordan vocalized this concern when appealing for full funding of its aid request, with news reports stating that “Jordan’s ability to include refugees in its health care and education systems might be eroded” unless further funding arrives.xiii

Rentier Mentalities of Education Provision in Jordan

While refugee rentierism shapes policy implementation, a “rentier mentality” shapes narratives around how the arrival of Syrian refugees has harmed the Jordanian education system (Gatter 2023). Dhingra (2016) reports this perception succinctly, writing that “the quality of education has rapidly declined in the country’s public schools due to overcrowded classrooms and overstretched resources.” However, there has been relatively little analysis of the long-term consequences of Syrian refugee arrival on either Syrian or Jordanian educational attainment. I use data provided to me by the Ministry of Education on Syrian and Jordanian enrollment from 2015 through 2019, alongside tawjihi pass–fail rates at the school level from 2010 through 2022 (approximately 7,541 total public and private schools, of which 1,862 are public high schools).

Firstly, the data highlight that while high numbers of Syrians are enrolling in primary education, very few are completing secondary education by passing Jordan’s national high school exam. An earlier Human Rights Watch study found that Syrians are dropping out of Jordan’s school system at very high rates. For example, while 80% of Jordanians were enrolled in secondary school in 2020, only approximately 25% of Syrian students were enrolled.xiv The data reinforce a similar impression. While Syrians constitute approximately 7% of all those enrolled in Jordanian primary and secondary education, they are just 2.8% of those passing the national high school exam. As a result, extraordinarily few Syrians are gaining the necessary credentials to complete higher education in Jordan. As one recent study highlighted, as few as 3% of Syrians in Jordan are pursuing higher education, compared with 20% in pre-war Syria.xv Given economic barriers and a status quo in which Syrians are barred from working in most professions requiring higher education, like health care or education, it is perhaps unsurprising that relatively few Syrians are pursuing higher education.

Beyond how these integration processes serve Syrian students, the data also allow me to explore the extent to which Syrian arrival has impacted Jordanians’ education. I use two available indicators that we might expect to see reflected in the data: Jordanian enrollment in private schools and Jordanian pass–fail rates on the national high school exam, the tawjihi. In Figure 1 below, there is very little evidence that Jordanians in communities with high levels of Syrian enrollment are leaving the public school system. Instead, those communities where Syrian enrollment is above the 75th percentile nationally—where Syrians constitute approximately 10% of all students—have actually seen less local private school enrollment than communities where Syrians have not resettled in high numbers (where they constitute fewer than 2.5% of Syrians enrolled). Analyzing pass–fail rates on the tawjihi,xvi In Figure 2, I similarly find no evidence that local Syrian enrollment impacted Jordanian students’ performance on the tawjihi. Of course, these data are limited in several ways. Notably, the arrival of Syrian refugees may have longer-term impacts on education, and performance on the Jordanian national tawjihi exam is not a comprehensive measure of educational attainment. However, my findings echo those of a recent publication from Assaad, Ginn, and Saleh, who highlight no effect on grade completion, repetition, or entry to secondary and tertiary education among Jordanian students (Assaad et al. 2023). These results underscore the minimal effects of Syrian refugee enrollment on observable Jordanian educational outcomes, in contrast to the narratives that emphasize Syrians’ direct, negative impact on the quality of education for Jordanians.

Scholars in this volume analyze how refugee rentierism can explain observed policy shifts in settings beyond Jordan (Worral 2024; Malit 2024). Similarly, negotiations over the policies that structure Syrian inclusion into Jordanian education occur far from the public eye. As a result, it can be difficult to disentangle how technocratic considerations, contingent decision-making, or the instrumental ways states and policymakers seek to extract rents shape outcomes. This research highlights that while all three mechanisms are likely salient, refugee rentierism, commodification, and their accompanying mentalities are indispensable in understanding Syrian access to education in Jordan.

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i Today, Jordan also hosts smaller communities of Sudanese, Somali, and other African-origin refugees, who face high barriers in accessing public services, with education no exception. ii UNRWA schools have taught national curricula since the organization’s formation, with the exception of a brief period in Lebanese camps before the Lebanese Civil War. iii UNHCR Syrian Refugee Response: Jordan. Available at: https://data2.unhcr.org/en/situations/syria/location/36. iv The Compact was agreed upon in 2015 and announced in February 2016 (Barbelet et al. 2018, 2). [5] “I want to continue to study: Barriers to secondary education for Syrian Refugee children in Jordan,” Human Rights Watch (2020). Available at: https://www.hrw.org/report/2020/06/26/i-want-continue-study/barriers-secondary-education-syrian-refugee-children-jordan. [6] The majority of schools operating in double shifts before Syrian refugee arrival were located in the cities of Amman, Irbid, and Zarqa. In those buildings, the two different “schools,” which have different staff and student rosters, alternate between operating in the morning and afternoon, often every other month. This system also generates concerns from teachers, parents, and students around an absence of scheduling consistency. In schools where the second shift is for Syrian students, Syrian shifts always occur in the afternoon. [7] “20,000 teachers work under the substitute teacher system,” 1 October 2023. Available at: https://www.ammonnews.net/article/735378. [8] “Appointment lists spark conversations… and the Ministry of Education forms an internal investigation committee,” Husna FM, 8 August 2022. Available at: Link.; https://www.ammonnews.net/article/735378; https://royanews.tv/news/284788. ix See: https://www.double-shift.org/ x Salem, H. 2020. ‘Integrated but Segregated: Syrian Refugee Students’ Reflections of Space in Jordan’s Double-Shift Schools.’ Reach Initiative at Harvard University. Available at: https://www.reach.gse.harvard.edu/blogs/migration-displacement/series/integrated-but-segregated xi UNHCR resettled only 17,000 from all neighboring countries in its most recent year on record. ‘Syria Situation.’ UNHCR. Available at: https://reporting.unhcr.org/operational/situations/syria-situation xii “Eighth Regional Survey on Syrian Refugee’s Perceptions & Intentions to Return to Syria,” UNHCR, May 2023. Available at: https://www.3rpsyriacrisis.org/portfolio/rpis2023/, p. 8 xiii Raed Omari, “Shrinking Budget: UN agency raises alarm over Syrian refugee relief in Jordan,” 22 July 2023. Available at: https://www.arabnews.com/node/2342231/middle-east xiv “I want to continue to study: Barriers to secondary education for Syrian refugee children in Jordan,” Human Rights Watch, June 2020. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/media_2020/06/jordan0620_web.pdf. xv Joshua Levkowitz, “Syrian students in Jordan still betting on university,” Institute of Current and World Affairs, 14 November 2022. Available at: https://www.icwa.org/syrians-bet-on-university/. xvi The figure presented below presents the notion that national pass–fail rates fluctuate substantially year to year according to the content of the test. These rates are highly scrutinized in Jordanian media.