For hundreds of thousands of students in Lebanon, the school year began only this month, but they are not sure they’ll be able to finish it as scheduled. About four months ago a teachers’ strike was launched at all of the public schools in the country, encompassing some 300,000 students. Then, about two weeks ago, the teaching staff at private schools, in which about 700,000 students are enrolled, joined the strike.
Although the major economic crisis plaguing Lebanon over the past two years is often measured in macro terms, when translated into the inability of teachers to pay for travel to school, or a shutdown of computers belonging to students studying via Zoom – the massive extent of this blow becomes evident.
The damage caused to the Lebanese school system has been particularly severe, not only because of the pandemic. The purchasing power of the salaries of public school teachers has dropped drastically along with the plummeting value of the Lebanese lira. In addition, funding for development and maintenance of educational institutions has evaporated due to severe budget deficits, and droves of teachers have abandoned their workplaces after not receiving their salary for at least three or four months – and in some cases, for even up to a year.
The average salary of an untenured teacher in Lebanon is about $90 a month, and about 70 percent of these employees work on temporary contracts and can be dismissed on the spot, without social benefits such as health-care services or stipends for traveling or insurance, which teachers with permanent positions are entitled to.
The situation in the private schools is equally grave. In the past year over 26,000 students dropped out of these institutions and switched to public schools where education is provided free of charge, but whose academic level is substantially inferior. Fortunately for the private facilities, the strike in the public schools brought them about 60,000 students whose parents were afraid their children would lose the entire school year.
However, a report published in January by UNICEF indicates that the movement of students between the two types of schools does not balance out the overall number of dropouts: about 31 percent of all school-age students. The number of students enrolled in the country’s schools plummeted dramatically this year to 43 percent, as compared to about 60 percent last year.
Many youths leave school to work and help support their families, according to the UN report. In any event, the available figures do not reflect the real number of dropouts, because some teenagers attend school only part time, and work at incidental jobs the rest of the time. They are thus enrolled in the school system, but do not receive a proper education that would prepare them for university-level studies, or advanced professional training that could in future make lucrative positions available to them.
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The situation of the children of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is even worse. A study conducted by the Harvard University School of Education two years ago in three schools where such youngsters were enrolled described a very sad situation, in which the children study during their teachers’ second shift; the teachers are exhausted and there are communication problems as well. English lessons are the biggest obstacle but there is also shortage of educators who can demonstrate understanding and empathy for the students’ problems and traumas. The result is that about one-third of the refugee students have dropped out of school and joined the work force.
“Not only is the system collapsing, but we’re losing an entire generation of Lebanese students,” one school principal told the authors of the study. And he was referring not only to elementary- and high school-aged students but also to those at the universities as well. The Lebanese University, the only public academic institution of its kind in the country – which also has 28 accredited private universities – is unable to underwrite regular maintenance expenses, to fund research studies or to offer scholarships to students.
Although tuition is free at the Beirut-based university, in the past two years supplementary expenses for students such as travel, books and food, have become an unbearable burden that many can’t afford.
“I have to spend three to four hours a day on travel that costs me more than my father earns,” one student told the Sky News Arabia website. “In addition, I have to bring food from home and purchase writing implements without having any chance of getting part-time work because of the strong competition for every reasonable job.”
Lebanese University President Bassam Badran, who was appointed in October, told the Al-Fanar website, which focuses on education in the Middle East, that he employs about 3,320 temporary lecturers and about 1,650 tenured faculty members, who teach over 86,000 students from all over the country. “I demanded a budget increase of $265 million,” he said, “but instead they informed me that the university budget would be cut by $12 million.”
In the past two years, Badran added, over 100 teachers have left the university, and external lecturers have not received their salary for over four months. There is almost no new research being conducted, no money to help needy students, and now Badran is trying to raise funds from businessmen, who are in no rush to open their wallets.
Last week there was finally a government “consultation” in order to examine ways of solving the crisis in the school system. It was decided to allocate travel expenses for teachers and to examine their salary scale. The teachers, for their part, realized that they couldn’t hope for any more than that at this time. Although studies were due to be renewed, they are constantly on the lookout for alternative jobs or trying to emigrate – and the country’s classrooms show it.