Lebanese Education Sector in Danger of Generational Damage

Friday, October 29, 2021
Opinion by Jean AbiNader and James McLellan

The ongoing crises in Lebanon have severely affected its already vulnerable education system.

Two immediate results are diminished learning acquisition among students and the shift in K-12 schooling from the private to the public sector. For years, the public education sector has been under-resourced and subject to politics, leading the majority of parents to enroll their children in private schools.

The economic collapse of the country has put private education out of reach and those students are crowding into a weakened public system that is overwhelmed, with fewer resources, and poorly regarded.

Before the current crises, 60% of all students attended private schools, as demonstrated in a recent presentation by Dr. Ghina Al-Badawi Hafez, the Director General of Education at the Al Makassed Association of Beirut. The financial burden of childhood education in Lebanon has largely fallen onto parents, who spend some $1.5 billion per year, exceeding the government’s budget of $1.2 billion.

The recent migration of students from private to public schools creates new facts on the ground which reflect how the economic crisis has transformed the current outlook for families of school-aged children.

In their September report “Education Rapid Needs Assessment on Lebanon,” the Italian NGO Associazione Volontari per il Servizio Internazionale (AVSI) examined challenges of educational access and retention in school-aged Lebanese and refugee children in Mount Lebanon, Bekaa, Nabatiyeh, and the South.

Among the sampled schools of the NGO study, 92% saw a significant influx of students (mostly Lebanese) from private or semi-private schools between academic year 2019-2020 and 2020-2021. The study also noted that the pupil to teacher ratio rose from 15 to 17 students. As a result, 35% of the schools interviewed did not have the capacity to welcome new students and will have to refuse additional intakes.

Dr. Al-Badawi Hafez’s presentation detailed just how costly education has become for parents. The cost of school fees increased from 4.8 million LBP in 2019-2020 to 9.3 million; the average cost of transportation soared almost four-times over, from 1.2 million LBP to 4 million; the cost of school uniforms rose from 150,000 LBP to 600,000; books alone have risen five-fold, reaching prices of 2-3 million LBP; generator fees spiked from an average cost of 500,000 LBP to 2 million; and, as of September, there was an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases, which have of course brought challenges to parents everywhere.

Moreover, due to the Lebanese Lira losing more than 90% of its value since 2019, teacher salaries, tuition rates, and costs of educational resources have all become obstacles to teachers, parents, and students alike.

In a July 2021 article published in Reuters, “Rodolphe Abboud, head of the syndicate for private school teachers, said every school has lost between ten to 40 teachers so far, with some staying at home because they can no longer afford childcare.” The same article highlights select perspectives from former Lebanese educators who have had to restart their life from scratch as middle-aged emigrants.

This brain drain is taking a huge toll on the future generations who are currently facing a mismatch between skills and labor market needs. Resettlement comes with challenges of its own, even for those with the means to leave their trying circumstances in Lebanon.

Dr. Al-Badawi Hafez also cites assessment results of learning progress among students in the education sector indicating that the overwhelming majority of lower-scoring schools are public, which reflects the larger educational inequality between public and private schools – a gap that is especially noticeable with disadvantaged schools. The Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) found that only 1% of those students performed well in reading, which is significantly lower than the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s (OECD) global average of 9%.

The COVID-19 pandemic demanded major virtual accommodations from teachers, parents, and students all around the world. In Lebanon, the pandemic starkly illuminated the pre-existing inequities of access to electricity across the country, which has only become more dire amid the recent lifting of fuel subsidies. For many, this has meant the absence of students from the classroom altogether. Between January of 2020 and February of 2021 alone, schools in Lebanon were closed for 154 total days, accounting for 75% of the entire school year.

Add to this, the traumatic impact of the 2020 Port of Beirut explosion, which directly inflicted damage to buildings serving more than 55,000 students, which compounded the pre-existing needs from the construction, expansion, and rehabilitation of school facilities to the provisions of educational equipment and furnishings.

Where to go from here demands a multilayered and comprehensive strategy. Lebanon must attract teachers back from emigration into the education sector and implement a long-term plan to supply adequate financing and other resources for education. Lebanon’s leaders must decide if they will commit to a large-scale generational investment in a generation that is being ill-equipped for the future.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon.