BEIRUT—Lebanese education experts have produced an emergency plan for the country’s higher-education system that calls for an immediate injection of funds to ensure the continuity of teaching and learning.
The document, which follows a series of dialogues called “Higher Education in Times of Collapse”, says immediate action is needed to offset the effects of Lebanon’s dire economic crisis on higher-education institutions, especially the national Lebanese University.
The plan was produced by the HOPES-LEB project and the National Erasmus+ Office in Lebanon, with support from the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
Its recommendations are based on input from a series of stakeholder dialogues held over the past year that brought together academics, higher-education professionals, students and others.
Aref Alsoufi, director of the National Erasmus+ Office in Lebanon, told Al-Fanar Media the plan sought a consolidated, collective response to the multiple crises confronting Lebanon.
“We cannot afford to have a lost generation of students, which would take years to rebuild,” Alsoufi said. “The plan is intended for all universities. More than one institution is in need of immediate intervention, especially the Lebanese University, which is the most afflicted.”
“We cannot afford to have a lost generation of students, which would take years to rebuild. … More than one institution is in need of immediate intervention, especially the Lebanese University, which is the most afflicted.”Aref Alsoufi, director of the National Erasmus+ Office in Lebanon
He added: “So far, the universities have reacted individually seeking their own solutions, but the sector as a whole needs collective support.”
The repercussions of Lebanon’s overlapping crises have had a detrimental effect on all sectors, especially higher education. An economic meltdown that started in October 2019 led to financial uncertainty, the sharp devaluation of the national currency, banking restrictions on depositors’ withdrawals, and the loss of human resources. Those problems were intensified by the Covid-19 pandemic and the devastating 2020 Beirut port blast.
“All these crises led to a decline in revenue generation for many of Lebanon’s universities, which effectively entered into survival mode, slashing budgets in order to maintain basic operations,” said Rima Rassi, research development manager at the Issam Fares Institute, who drafted and presented the paper.
“Students from all backgrounds, more so those from underprivileged backgrounds and refugees, were deprived of access to higher education because their families had to prioritise other basic needs, such as food and medicine,” she said. “Education took a backseat while students had to work to fund their studies and support their families.”
The Lebanese University’s Dire Situation
The paper gives special attention to the Lebanese University, the country’s largest university and sole public one. It enrolled 86,000 students during the academic year 2020-2021, including more than 3,500 non-Lebanese students from 115 countries. According to the World Bank, an estimated 36 percent of Lebanon’s students who are enrolled in higher education attend the Lebanese University.
The Lebanese University was already struggling financially before the economy plunged in 2019. When the actual economic crisis hit, the university’s situation became impossible to manage without jeopardising the future of its students.
Before 2019, the university’s annual budget was 365 billion Lebanese pounds, then equivalent to $243 million at an official exchange rate of about 1,500 pounds to the dollar.
Today, with the government cutting funds to the Lebanese University and the pound trading on the parallel market at a rate of 37,500 pounds to the dollar, the value of the university’s budget has dropped to about $10 million, leaving it unable to cover even its operational expenses.
Recommendations for Other Universities
The emergency plan, which is mainly trying to prevent the Lebanese University’s collapse, also made recommendations for other universities, the Lebanese state, and international donors.
It called for immediate funding to support administrative and operational needs to ensure continuity of teaching and learning, including the purchase of power generators and material support for alternative energy sources. Energy supply has been a challenge for many institutions because of extended blackouts and the high cost of fuel.
Other recommendations included help to buy laboratory material and equipment, repairing existing equipment, gifts in kind to strengthen academic practices and research output, and incentives for faculty and staff to guard against the attrition of human resources.
“All these crises led to a decline in revenue generation for many of Lebanon’s universities, which effectively entered into survival mode, slashing budgets in order to maintain basic operations.”Rima Rassi, research development manager at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs
The paper urged the state to provide clear legal guidance for online and blended learning and to create a national quality assurance body, as well as a national database to centralise all information about higher education institutions.
International donors were urged to make the funding applications process easier and to extend project timelines because of Lebanon’s situation.
Urgent assistance was also recommended for scholarships, financial aid and transportation, as well as competency-based training so students can meet Lebanon’s labour market needs.
“The paper basically addressed the short-term needs of higher education in order to get the students back in the classroom in a proper and healthy environment and secure an uninterrupted delivery of teaching and learning,” Alsoufi said. “We are addressing the international community because, for now, it is the only available resource.”
HOPES-LEB is the successor to the HOPES (Higher and Further Education Opportunities and Perspectives for Syrians) programme. HOPES-LEB is funded by the European Union through the EU Regional Trust Fund in Response to the Syrian Crisis (the “EU Madad Fund”) and implemented by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), Campus France, and Nuffic, the Dutch organisation for internationalisation in education.
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