BEIRUT—There’s some new and important twists in the long-running game of “chicken” between Lebanon’s teachers and the government. Each side has been trying to force the other to give in, as teachers and other public workers try to get a raise.
The teachers said they would not correct student’s final exams unless they got more money. That meant students could not get into universities. Then the education minister said he would give all students “certificates of attendance.” Now the teachers’ union has called for a comprehensive strike.
A Union Coordinating Committee, representing civil servants and teachers, says it will not start marking exams until the long-awaited salary raise for public workers is approved. The movement includes private-school teachers.
Last week, education minister Elias Bou Saab approved issuing certificates of attendance to about 148,000 middle and high school students. “The decision has gone into effect and students can now enroll in universities,” said a statement released by the education ministry.
The decision came as negotiations with the union committee entered a deadlock. The committee has been boycotting grading exams to pressure parliament to endorse the bill that would increase their salaries. Civil servants and teachers are demanding a 121 percent raise, matching one given to judges in 2011, and have held a series of protests and strikes over the last several years to pressure parliament to approve the draft law. The law is blocked because legislators disagree about how to find the money for the raises.
Bou Saab said he had exhausted all his options. The head of the secondary school teachers’ league, Hanna Gharib, described the minister’s decision as being against education and threatening the future of thousands of students.
“Students have been deprived of their right to obtain certificates; we have also been deprived of our rights as teachers and students must ask for their full rights,” said Gharib. “Politicians have used students as a card to put pressure on us. They created a dispute between students and teachers to stop the law to increase salaries.”
Gharib rejected any blame for the minister’s decision, saying that the union had opposed issuing attendance certificates from the start. The step was proposed by “the minister alone and not by the union,” he said.
Certificates of attendance were issued on several occasions during the Lebanese civil war, either because exams could not be held or because fighting prevented the correcting of exams. Nonetheless, using the method today endangers the reputation of Lebanese education, critics of the strategy believe, because the minister’s decision gave certificates to all grade 12 students. Even those who did not show up for class or could have failed the official exam would still be eligible for admission.
“The truth will never die if it has defenders,” said Tayseer Hameya, a lecturer at the Hadath branch of Lebanese University and the director of its research laboratory.
Hameya, who is also a former dean of the faculty of agriculture, cited the experience of full-time professors at the Lebanese University who won a salary increase after a 50-day strike. He believes that giving teachers some incentives could boost their confidence in the government and end the exam-marking boycott.
He does not support the certificates of attendance decision due to what he believes will be its negative effects on education quality. He says there is no entrance exam for new students for many disciplines at the Lebanese University such as science, arts and law—so any student with a certificate could join the university.
As a result, this year Hameya estimates around 10,000 new students could join the Lebanese University, the only public university in the country, which already has more than 75,000 students. “This huge number will put the university in trouble due to the current number of lecturers, staff and other public facilities.” He said. “Of course, this emergency could also lead to deterioration of the education level at the national university.”
Kamal Darouni, a lecturer in communications at the University of Notre Dame Louaize, downplayed the significance of the ministerial decision. “Even students who want to study abroad do not need certificates as most Western universities rely on entrance exams and grades during the school year.”
Darouni believes that the universities in Lebanon, up to 42, could easily enroll all the new students. “Large universities rely on entrance exam, but students could directly enroll to many small universities who could be the primary beneficiary of this decision.”
Students were divided over the impact of Bou Saab’s decision. Carla Khoury, a grade 12 student, supported the demands of her teachers even though she lost her opportunity to join the military school, which expects applicants to have at least a 60 percent average in the grade 12 official exams. “We even lost our right of public employment,” she said.
Pamela Abu Nader, another grade 12 student, felt the decision was unjust. “We studied very hard throughout the year,” she said, “We were worried about the changing exam dates and then we faced the problem of correcting exams and now the minister announced the success of everyone,” she said. “This is unfair.”
The new academic year will start in the next few weeks. But the battle is still going on and the union is vowing to file a lawsuit to block the issuing of certificates, with the help of a former interior minister and lawyer, Ziad Baroud. “We should not back down under the pressure. They cannot issue attendance certificates every year,” Gharib said.