Social IssuesMar 09, 2022
ARTICLE | On the Brink: The Critical State of Lebanon’s Education System
- Rima Bahous, Fadi Nicholas Nassar, Makram Ouaiss
As Lebanon’s schools and universities began the academic year, one question weighed heavily on the minds of students, educators, administrators, parents, and staff: Can the already fragile education sector survive the compounded pressures brought on by Covid-19 and the country’s economic crisis? Despite valiant efforts by many establishments to remain open in the midst of such an adverse context, Lebanon’s education system is suffering, especially public institutions.
Lebanon’s education sector has long been held as a foundational national institution—one of few in Lebanon. More than just a reliable source of quantifiable economic (and social) outputs, it has historically been a lifeline for the country’s people. This sector is today at a critical juncture, and while private schools are persevering under difficult circumstances, public schools are on the verge of collapse.
As a result of the economic crisis, around 55,000 students moved from private to public schools in 2020-21 alone, thus adding more pressure on the public school system (World Bank Report 2021). There has also been an alarming increase in dropout rates, due both to the extended pandemic closures and the need for additional income among families impoverished by the crisis. UNICEF (2022) reports that: “3 in 10 young people in Lebanon have stopped their education, while 4 in 10 reduced spending on education to buy essential items like basic food and medicine.” The international organization estimates that roughly 13 percent of families are asking their children to work as a way to cope economically.
Lebanon’s education system has been a bulwark of resilience in a very comprehensive sense—helping diversify and train the country's workforce, empowering women and underprivileged communities, and offering people social and economic mobility, even if to migrate and find work outside Lebanon. On a less quantifiable level, it has been key to the country’s imagination of itself and a reflection of the challenges posed by its persistent state of fragility.
Lebanon’s education sector was not built overnight; it is the product of decades of investment, work, and trust. Still, the past few years have been especially difficult, producing unresolved structural pressures that have left it particularly vulnerable to today’s political and financial crises. Failure to address the needs of this hard-hit sector, or to attempt to separate it from the broader national recovery plan, will risk jeopardizing a more-than-century-old institution, one that cannot so easily be resuscitated.
Public resources allocated to education in Lebanon have always fallen short. In 2020, less than 2% of the country’s GDP was spent on education, significantly lower than the recommended minimum of 4% to 6% (UNESCO, 2015; World Bank 2017). As detailed in a recent World Bank Report, from January 2020 to February 2021, the Lebanese school system opened for less than 25% of the school year.
Over the years, the country has had to deal with a number of significant challenges, many of which are still on going. In turn, these challenges—particularly, the Syrian refugee crisis—have added pressure on an already fragile education sector, all against the backdrop of the country’s broader crisis of governance. In 2019, “No Lost Generation” estimated that 365,000 Syrian refugee children were enrolled in Lebanese schools.
A number of internationally financed programs were developed to ease the burden on the Lebanese school system, but they were insufficient. Drawing attention to the discrepancies between the actual needs of the educational sector and the donor aid directed to it, a recent publication by the Center for Lebanese Studies (CLS) noted that in 2016, for example, aid fell short by nearly $100 million of the educational system’s needs. The report adds that international humanitarian aid to Lebanon has suffered from a gradual decline in funding.
Against the backdrop of a coordinated, even if limited flow, of donor aid, many internationally backed projects were implemented for a certain period to ease the burden on the education sector and to offer quality education for refugee students. But, once the final report of each of these initiatives was presented to the stakeholders, the implementation of core measures to build such a robust and inclusive educational sector largely stopped. The implications on refugee children are alarming, with more than half of Syrian refugee children out of school.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought with it additional burdens on the already vulnerable education sector. Covid lockdowns have had a negative impact on students, teachers, and parents alike. Remote learning proved to be challenging, due to a variety of factors: instructors were not trained to teach remotely, internet access was limited and unstable, and the rationing of electricity and fuel shortages meant that many homes had no power for many hours on any given day.
Remote learning has also largely put students in the same basket, despite differences in their educational, social, and economic needs. Diversity, differentiation, and inclusion are essential to maximize student potential, and when not centered and streamlined, educational services risk inhibiting students’ abilities and development. While the opening of schools may have addressed some of these issues, it has also come in the context of the new Omicron wave and a battered healthcare system.
The earlier period of remote learning and the return of in-class learning coincided with the almost complete collapse of the country’s economy. Teachers who have been on the frontlines, offering critical education in the midst of a global pandemic, severe breakdown of public services and infrastructure, and a debilitating economic depression have been especially hard hit. With the Lebanese lira losing nearly 90% of its value, public school teachers who are still paid in the local currency have been made extremely vulnerable, as have teachers in private schools who are still largely paid in lira. The most affected are teachers paid by the hour, who in some cases have seen the value of their hourly wages fall from around $13 to only one dollar per hour!
Despite soaring inflation and an informal dollarization of the economy, the proposed national budget has made no plans to adjust the salaries of public school teachers, who have been on strike since the start of the year. Yet, the Ministry of Education has continued to stand by its proposal to primarily offer nominal transportation assistance to help teachers cover the rising transportation and fuel costs. But, as protesters have lamented, such measures are far from adequate, and fail to respond to the core issue: teacher salaries have become so deflated that at times they barely cover the transportation costs to go to work, especially for teachers commuting from rural areas.
Like other core sectors of the economy, the prolonged crisis and extreme hardship endured by teachers has sparked high levels of emigration. More than 15% of private school teachers have left the country seeking work elsewhere (El Deeb, 2021). The teachers who remain in Lebanon often have to take on the additional responsibilities brought on by shrinking staff, despite significant pay cuts and the daily burdens resulting from the collapsing economy. Furthermore, teachers have had to show understanding and patience in dealing with students, who in turn have had to relearn what it means to go to school, to have classmates to talk to, to follow rules—all before even getting to the subjects of math, science, history, etc.
The enduring impact of the country’s economic crisis is also felt by families and households that can no longer afford tuition or transportation to and from school, especially in rural areas. Teachers have been reported to supply school materials out of pocket, despite their extreme income vulnerability. They have offered core resources like stationery, books, and other materials to economically vulnerable students, adding to the difficulties and complex choices they face. The rising cost of living in Lebanon has made core necessities like education increasingly inaccessible for vulnerable households.
Save the Children (2021) warns that there is a high possibility that the more students stay out of school, the more they may experience exploitation and violence. Also, in more than one interview, the organization’s country director Jennifer Moorehead stated that “Children in Lebanon already had lower rates of literacy and numeracy than the average in countries across the Middle East. The longer children are out of school, the more they will fall behind.”
The critical state of Lebanon’s education sector reveals that there can be no cosmetic reforms or band-aid approaches. Nor will ad-hoc assistance to the education sector keep it afloat for long. There is no sustainable, functioning education sector without resolving the country’s failed model of governance and its all-encompassing economic crisis. In a sense, how we respond to the threat facing one of the country’s most trusted institutions will shape our collective future.
As the country grapples with the current complex set of crises, it needs to embark on a comprehensive reform agenda that puts students at the center of the education sector and prioritizes quality of education for all, without compromising the security and wellbeing of teachers and educational staff (World Bank report, 2021).
Lebanon needs to prepare a roadmap that builds on recent studies and offers a plan for quality education to all students. Most urgently, however, the Lebanese government has to prioritize its assistance to the education sector to save what is left, by ensuring that our educators can deliver their classes in a dignified way, that students do not have to choose between their education and their families’ economic survival, and that schools and families together are able to provide children an adequate environment to learn.
Abdul-Hamid, H. & Yassine, M. (2020). Political economy of education in Lebanon: Research for results program. International Development in Focus. World Bank.
El-Deeb, S. (2021). In crisis-struck Lebanon, school year is gripped by chaos. Associated Press.
Issam Fares Institute report (2019). Open dialogue in education. American University of Beirut.
No Lost Generation (2019). Investing in the future: Protection and learning for all Syrian children and youth. UNICEF.
Save the Children (2021). Lebanon Education in crisis: Raising the alarm. Save the Children.
Schwartz, K.D., Exner-Cortens, D., McMorris, D., Makarentko, E., Arnold, P., Van Bavel., M. Williams, S. & Canfield, R. (2021). Covid 19 and student well-being: Stress and mental health during return-to-school. Journal of Social Psychology 36(2), 166 – 185. https://doing.org/10.1177/08295735211001653.
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UNESCO (2015). Education 2030: Incheon declaration and framework for action for the implementation of sustainable development goal 4: Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. UNESCO.
UNICEF (2019). Study on out of school children in Lebanon. UNICEF.
UNICEF (2022). Searching for Hope: A Grim Outlook for Youth as Lebanon Teeters on the Brink of Collapse. UNICEF.
World Bank (2017). Lebanon education public expenditures review 2017. The World Bank.
World Bank Report (2021). Foundations for building forward better. The World Bank.
World Bank and UNICEF (2021). World Bank education COVID 19 – School Closure Map. The World Bank.Rima Bahous is an Associate Professor of Education at the Lebanese American University. She has more than 30 years of experience in teaching at the tertiary level and has published extensively in the field of education.Fadi Nicholas Nassar is a research fellow at the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (LCPS). His research focuses on international humanitarian and relief interventions in fragile and conflict settings, popular uprisings and social movements, and Lebanese and Middle Eastern politics. He is Assistant Professor of Political Science and International Affairs and Director of the Institute for Social Justice and Conflict Resolution at the Lebanese American University (LAU). Fadi holds a PhD from the War Studies Department at King’s College London. A graduate of Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, he also received a Master of Public Administration from Columbia University.Makram Ouaiss is Executive Director of the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies. Previously, Ouaiss was a professor of political science and international affairs, with a specialization in conflict analysis and resolution, at the Lebanese American University.