Social IssuesApr 19, 2023
Higher Education in Lebanon: Struggling to Survive in Times of Crises
A university student carries a sign declaring "The Lebanese University is a Red Line!" (Archival image from Annahar)
- Bassel Akar
The higher education sector in Lebanon is responsible for professionalizing the country’s human capital and producing evidence-informed knowledge for sustainable living. However, the local economic and political crises since 2019 revealed vulnerabilities that threaten the survival of the public university and a large number of universities in the private sector. Responses by universities to different aspects of crises revealed different degrees of resilience.
The higher education sector in Lebanon comprises one public university—the Lebanese University—and 42 higher education institutions in the private sector, 31 of which are universities.
The crash of the Lebanese pound (LBP) has had a detrimental effect on how university administrators managed research and teaching activities. In October 2019, the value of the LBP started to drop. Its official rate fixed by the Banque du Liban (BDL) was 1,508 LBP/USD. However, trade in the black market lowered its value to 9,000 LBP by July 2020, and then 22,000 by summer 2021, to surpass the bar of 100,000 LBP/USD in early 2023. The BDL issued circular 151 in April 2021 that allowed holders of USD accounts to withdraw in LBP at a rate of 3,900 instead of the official rate. Universities drew on this bank rate to adjust its salaries and tuition fees.
Recent media coverage (Atallah, 2023; Jack, 2023; Kadi, 2023) and a recently published policy brief from the Lebanese Center for Policy Studies (Akar, 2022) reveal various vulnerabilities of the higher education sector that have crippled and continue to threaten the quality, access to, and availability of research and professional learning.
Salary rescue plans
A critical first area hit by the crises was the salaries of faculty and staff at universities. Salaries in higher education are paid in LBP. So, a monthly salary of 4 million LBP (value of 2,600 USD at 1,508 LBP/USD) was worth 500 USD by the end of summer 2020, and this value has only continued to fall. Private universities responded in two phases. First, between the 2021 spring and fall semesters, they increased salaries in LBP by 35-50%. The second phase occurred in the following semester, spring 2022, where approximately 10% of the monthly salary was paid in USD cash.
The exception in the private sector was observed in at least a couple of universities that had long-established endowments. The Lebanese American University reportedly secured payments of at least 20% of salaries in USD currency by the summer of 2020, while faculty at the American University of Beirut (AUB) reported they received a rescue annual salary of 20,000 USD. The AUB drew on its endowment to transfer 100 million USD in spring 2021 to continue ensuring payments in USD to faculty and staff.
The Lebanese University, however, did not carry out a salary rescue plan. Instead, it maintained the highly bureaucratic process of requiring faculty members to travel in person to Beirut to submit invoices.
Despite increases in their monthly salary, faculty members report that the raises do not match the hyper inflated cost of living. One assistant professor in a private university expressed concern because “they haven’t compensated us in a way we can survive.” Some have not only struggled with basic living costs, but also expenses to manage online learning and teaching, such as Internet fees, electricity bills, and hardware maintenance. Even when living on campus to save transportation expenses, two full-time faculty members have had their monthly salaries reduced to zero--their university deducted electricity and heating based on the new, inflated prices from their monthly salary.
Adjusting tuition fees
Salary adjustments in most private universities were closely aligned with increases in tuition fees. Consequently, students in private universities have struggled to pay tuition fees inflated against black market currency rates (Abi Nader, 2021).
Universities in Lebanon’s private sector rely mostly on tuition fees as their primary source of income (Nahas, 2009). These universities initially adjusted tuition fees in May 2021, by either adopting the rate set by BDL circular 151 at 3,900 LBP/USD or by setting a middle-ground rate of 2,900 LBP/USD. Not all private universities quickly increased tuition fees. Many of those without established endowment programs delayed setting a negotiated rate, mostly because of pressure from student groups. By spring 2022, nearly all private universities had raised the tuition exchange rate to 3,900 LBP/USD or higher to 5,500 LBP/USD.
Universities with strong endowment programs, such as AUB and LAU, had secured financial aid for more than half their students; however, they have requested payments for tuition fees be made only in USD starting in the fall of 2022. Still faculty salaries are not being paid fully in dollars, as a majority of students have remained on financial aid and unable to pay their full tuition in US dollars.
The Lebanese University is a free, public university that is funded primarily by the Lebanese government. For students, it charges registration fees. Any increases to the fees require government approval. “The Lebanese University will not function anymore” if fees are not raised, according to one assistant professor, because it needs money to cover operation costs. However, faculty members warned that if the Lebanese University raises registration fees, then a significant number of students will no longer be able to afford even the public university.
The higher education sector in Lebanon has witnessed an unprecedented emigration of faculty members. Perry (2020) identified many of these faculty members as leading innovative research and development initiatives, who are migrating due to depreciated salaries. The mass exodus of professionals in Lebanon has been described as a “terminal brain drain” (Vohra, 2021). Faculty members in private universities estimate that approximately half have either resigned or taken a leave of absence to secure another post abroad.
The empty seats have been difficult to fill. While most universities have frozen hiring of new faculty, administrators who are hiring reported having to recruit early career scholars after losing professors who have advanced their programs.
Those in private universities who chose to stay in their current positions reported either relying on their partner’s income or working on international consultancies for foreign currency.
Students managing change
University students have struggled to manage the various crises they are facing. The most common problem, according to informal conversations with students, has been the emotional distress of feeling uncertain over how they will finish their studies and what decisions the university will make next. In an exceptional case, a private university communicated provisions of mental health support. Communications across virtually all other universities focused more on updated decisions over tuition fees, payment methods, assessment and registration dates, and online learning and teaching platforms. Students have also redirected their studies away from initial aspirations and turned towards gaps in the labor market to secure jobs (Ramadan, 2022).
Access and availability
The crises have limited the availability of and accessibility to higher education. Household incomes for most families have not changed in any significant way, while the currency of an import-dependent economy crashed. Purchasing fuel and even stationary has been left to those more privileged with access to foreign currency. Many faculty members and students in the public Lebanese University are unable to secure transportation costs with the surge in petrol prices (France 24, 2022). Even those in private universities have had to start their own businesses or work long hours to pay tuition and support their parents (Kadi, 2023), while others moved to campus housing because they cannot afford petrol for transportation.
Directions for reform and recovery
The shocks and stressors of compounded crises since 2020 have significantly heightened the struggles in the higher education sector. Like other sectors in Lebanon, universities must find innovative pathways to recovery, and create more robust mechanisms of developing emergency response plans for crises to come.
Another effort has recently emerged from the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE) by approving on 30 September 2022 the Lebanon Five-Year Higher Education Plan 2023-2027, which was co-developed by an independent consultancy firm, BH Associates. The priority areas in this five-year plan address some critical dimensions to improving the quality of higher education in Lebanon. However, it made no reference to reforming the administration of salaries and operations at the Lebanese University and overlooked initiatives to improve learning and teaching through professional learning. Moreover, the priority area for governance called for granting greater authority to the Director General of Higher Education, with no mention of broadening accountability mechanisms through other stakeholders.
Clearly, reform plans and initiatives require far more inclusive methods of gathering input and direction from various university stakeholders, including faculty, staff, and students. Processes of inclusive consultations can also establish bodies that support advocacy and coordination efforts, such as reforming budgeting and payment procedures with the Ministry of Finance.
Abi Nader, Y. (2021). Currency crisis making teaching fees unpayable, Lebanese students say. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/lebanon-crisis-education-int-idUSKBN29Q1UO
Akar, B. (2022). Surviving the crises: Lebanon’s higher education in the balance (Policy Brief). https://www.lcps-lebanon.org/articles/details/4751/surviving-the-crises-lebanon%E2%80%99s-higher-education-in-the-balance
Atallah, N. (2023). Computer classes without computers at Lebanon’s once-great public university. The National. https://www.thenationalnews.com/weekend/2023/03/03/higher-education-at-risk-as-lebanons-only-public-university-on-the-brink-of-collapse/
France 24. (2022, 13 January). Students struggle as Lebanon crisis cripples university sector. France 24. https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20220113-students-struggle-as-lebanon-crisis-cripples-university-sector
Jack, P. (2023, 26 January). Higher education ‘in free fall’ in crisis-hit Lebanon. Times Higher Education. https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/higher-education-free-fall-crisis-hit-lebanon
Kadi, S. (2023). In Lebanon’s economic crisis, nearly every student has to work to pay tuition. Al-Fanar Media. https://www.al-fanarmedia.org/2023/04/in-lebanons-economic-crisis-nearly-every-student-has-to-work-to-pay-tuition/
Nahas, C. (2009). Financing and Political Economy of Higher Education in Lebanon http://www.charbelnahas.org/textes/Economie_et_politiques_economiques/HigherEducationFinancing-Lebanon.pdf
Perry, T. (2020). Lebanon's turmoil fuels brain drain. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-lebanon-crisis-brain-drain-idUKKCN24M1H9
Ramadan, T. (2022). Lebanon’s economic crisis is reshaping career planning for university students. L’Orient Today. https://today.lorientlejour.com/article/1289102/lebanons-economic-crisis-is-reshaping-career-planning-for-university-students.html
Vohra, A. (2021, August 9). Lebanon is in terminal brain drain. Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/08/09/lebanon-terminal-brain-drain-migration/Bassel Akar is an Associate Professor of Education at Notre Dame University - Louaize, Lebanon and Research Associate at the Center of African Studies, University of Porto, Portugal.