BEIRUT—The education sector in Lebanon has sustained invisible and immeasurable losses during the country’s compounding crises that will be hard to remedy, researchers and professors say.
Adnan El Amine, a senior fellow on education with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, estimates that the sector’s losses are “big and grave.”
“You need measurement tools to determine the extent of these losses and explore remedies and solutions,” El Amine said in an interview with Al-Fanar Media. “At the moment we cannot tell but I can categorically say that there are serious losses.”
For two years now, Lebanon has been assailed by an unprecedented economic and financial crisis, which was aggravated by Covid-19 lockdowns and the aftermath of the massive explosion at the Port of Beirut on August 4, 2020. (See two related articles, “For Many Universities in Lebanon, Survival May Be at Stake” and “Beirut Blast Cripples an Educational and Cultural Capital.”)
Of the three, the economic crisis has had by far the largest impact on all aspects of people’s lives, especially education. Corruption and political wrangling have cost the local currency more than 90 percent of its value in less than two years, propelling half the population into poverty and locking depositors out of their bank accounts. (See a related article, “Saint-Joseph University Students Lead a Fight Against Corruption in Lebanon.”)
Deeper Pain at the Public University
Teachers and the administrative staff at the Lebanese University, the country’s sole public university, have gone on an open-ended strike since October after their salaries in Lebanese pounds lost more than nine times their value. Their move is threatening to scrap the current academic year. (See a related article, “Hard-Hit by Lebanon’s Crisis, Some Professors Feel Exploited.”)
“We are in a deep crisis. Teachers’ salaries can hardly cover the cost of transportation to campus. I fear the whole academic year will be lost and the students will be paying the price.”Ziad Abou Alwan
A professor of architecture at the Lebanese University
“We are in a deep crisis,” said Ziad Abou Alwan, a professor of architecture at the university’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Architecture. “Teachers’ salaries can hardly cover the cost of transportation to campus. I fear the whole academic year will be lost and the students will be paying the price.”
Both private universities and the Lebanese University have been struggling to sustain their operations amid the protracted crises. While top and expensive private establishments such as the American University of Beirut, the Lebanese American University and Saint-Joseph University of Beirut could secure fresh funds from abroad and donations from alumni, the Lebanese University depends on the bankrupt government for funding. (See a related article, “Foreign Support Helps Lebanese Students Complete Degrees Amid Crises.”)
“Not only the Lebanese University is hard hit by the economic and financial crisis,” El Amine said. All institutions are “devising plans to adapt to the situation including top private universities which have suffered migration of many of their students to lower cost establishments.”
The exodus of qualified teachers, tight budgets, disruptions caused by the Covid-19 pandemic and the difficulty of providing online teaching amid frequent power outages and Internet cuts are common problems suffered by all establishments.
“The issue at stake is about how to administer higher education at a time of daunting financial and economic problems.”Adnan El Amine
An education expert with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs
The losses will get worse as the crisis persists, El Amine said. “This will eventually lead to the erosion of the human capital that Lebanon was prized for in the Arab region.”
In an opinion piece published by the Issam Fares Institute, El Amine said it is estimated that 10 to 30 percent of university teachers have migrated in the past couple of years. In some cases, a record of 80 percent have quit, most of them teachers of applied sciences, including medicine, engineering and pharmacy, who got jobs in Gulf universities. Of the remaining teachers, up to 50 percent are willing to leave if they have the opportunity.
Constrained by Sectarian Politics
“The issue at stake is about how to administer higher education at a time of daunting financial and economic problems,” El Amine said. “But the problem at the Lebanese University is more severe due to political hegemony. Under the university’s system of governance at least 80 percent of decision-makers are affiliated with political parties and follow their parties’ dictates.”
After the end of the civil war (1975-1990) the new system of governance put in place at the Lebanese University was devised to distribute powers between the various political parties. (See a related article, “In Lebanon, Sect Vs. Sect Turns Into People Vs. Politicians.”)
“So far there is no horizon for changing or amending the governance system of the Lebanese University,”Adnan El Amine
Unlike most private universities which have single campuses where students of different sectarian and social backgrounds come together, the Lebanese University has several branches across the country that cater to students from different religions and are dominated by sectarian political parties.
Central Planning Is Urgently Needed
What is the future of the Lebanese University under such an impasse?
“So far there is no horizon for changing or amending the governance system of the Lebanese University,” El Amine said. “Enormous obstacles stand in the way. Like in other sectors, public education is dominated by the ruling political class which will not allow the university to be autonomous and independent.”
“The university will not cease to exist,” he said, but “I expect the quality of education will decline and services will worsen in general.”[Enjoying this article? Subscribe to our free newsletter.]
To curb the losses in education, the Lebanese Ministry of Education and Higher Education urgently needs to assume a central role, El Amine said.
Its first step should be to “diagnose the current situation and try to determine the losses,” he said. After that, he added, it needs to “set an educational agenda and work accordingly.”