How many universities does a country need? And how should those students be divided up among institutions?
Lebanon, one of the more active Arab countries in higher education, could be considered a case study.
According to education-ministry statistics, the number of students has increased from 120,000 in 2004 to 210,000 in 2013. About 75,000 of those students are at the nation’s only public university, Lebanese University. Students might find themselves on a lightly populated rural campus or in a crowded classroom of an urban campus.
“The total licensed universities in Lebanon are 47, only 41 are active on the ground,” said Ahmad Jamal, director general of Higher Education in the Ministry of Education & Higher Education in Lebanon. Jamal confirmed that all these universities are licensed legally. “There is no law that prevents licensing so many universities at all.”
Lebanon’s higher-education system is one of the oldest in the region and dates back to 1866 when the American University of Beirut was founded under the name of the Syrian Protestant College, followed by the University of Saint Joseph in 1875, then by the Lebanese American University, which had its origins in 1948 as Beirut College for Women. The Lebanese University was founded in 1951.
The private sector flourished in a sudden and rapid expansion following the 15-year civil war that Lebanon suffered between 1975 and 1990 and that damaged the country’s higher education, scaring away students and hurting infrastructure development. But that has changed.
“Today, universities are spread throughout Lebanon,” said Jamal. “Higher education is available now to all Lebanese youth, in the north and the south. Most importantly that helps girls, whose parents would not allow them to go to the capital to complete their higher education.”
“The competition to attract students has increased,” said Henry Aluwayt, a member of the executive committee that authorizes universities. He explained that the decision to license universities depends on standards that relate to the vision and mission of each university. “Infrastructure, teaching programs and the professors’ qualifications are the basic standards for universities’ authorization.”
Yet, the committee’s opinion is advisory, according to Aluwayt. Unfortunately, he said, licensing is often affected by political and sectarian influences, without regard to academic standards. He said many institutions become widely commercial, which also lowers the level of education, and that resources are very unevenly distributed.
Many of the Lebanese universities, especially the branch campuses, he said, have no more than 500 students. Such small campuses make administrators keep spending down on laboratories, libraries, and other infrastructure. “When there are only 200 students in the university, we even can’t talk about academic life,” said Jamal.
Moreover, the universities in Lebanon do not pay a great deal of attention to quality standards, according to Arda Ekmekji, dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, at Haigazian University. Competition between universities is focused on the fees students pay, she said, adding that the quality of the education gets less attention. “We have moved far away from quality of education to make the business of education,” Ekmekji said.
Lebanon does not have a formal system of quality control or accreditation once a university has been authorized to open. A few universities have international accreditation, and others are seeking it.
But the universities generate thousands of graduates annually. “The labor market is the real benchmark,” said Charbel Kfoury, an engineering professor at the Lebanese University. Kfoury suggests conducting a feasibility study for each proposed new university in Lebanon. “We should not give new licenses before studying the needs of the labor market and monitoring the work of universities,” he said. He added that there is a surplus of students in some university disciplines, particularly in medicine, pharmacy, engineering and business management.
Before the civil war, Lebanese universities used to graduate about 50 doctors a year. Today, there are seven medical schools which graduate around 550 doctors annually, according to a candidate for the head of the Lebanese Doctor’s Syndicate.
But whether the government can regulate the size of academic programs is a matter of debate. “Lebanon is the country of education and freedom of choice,” said Jamal. “We can’t impose a quota for the number of disciplines.” He added that the small size of the Lebanese labor market does not necessarily mean canceling some disciplines. “We export our students to the Arab world,” he said. Indeed, many pharmacy graduates at Lebanese American University go to work for chain pharmacies in the United States.
Just as teaching is of uneven quality at Lebanese universities, research is scarce. Only ten out of 47 universities in Lebanon conduct scientific research, according to Aluwayt. “Professors do not work too much on research due to the limited budgets,” said Aluwayt.
The Lebanese education ministry has worked on several projects to ensure the quality of education since 2004. The ministry, although it has no direct power over private universities, is working with the World Bank on a university-governance project. Sixteen Lebanese universities have already participated in the first phase of this project.
“University governance addresses how universities and higher education systems define and implement their goals, manage their institutions, and monitor their achievements,” Jamal explained.
Lebanese higher education is also waiting on Parliament to adopt new laws to ensure the quality of educational institutions and another law for education. The country is still working under a law adopted in 1960. “We should adopt the European method, where universities join each other and cooperate together to raise the level of education,” said Jamal stressing that Lebanon should remain known, as it is in Arabic, “the university of the east.”