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Lebanon: private education soars, public education sinks

Despite a student-teacher ratio of 7-1, public education in Lebanon ranks poorly worldwide and reform is urgently needed.
Teachers hold placards during a protest in front of the Grand Serail in Beirut, February 27, 2013. An open-ended strike by teachers and civil servants entered its second week today for the government to approve the wage hike proposal.  REUTERS/Sharif Karim (LEBANON - Tags: POLITICS EDUCATION CIVIL UNREST) - RTR3ECE2

The latest sparring over the ranks and salaries scale has revealed a structural flaw in the Lebanese economy at the level of public spending. It also raised the issue of reforms and controlling waste at all levels by directing attention toward how the Lebanese parliament failed to develop a plan to rationalize public spending and opted for easy but costly solutions based on raising taxes.

Lebanon's educational sector needs deep structural reform, perhaps more than any other. Education has long been a vehicle of wealth for Lebanon, which interacted with Arab neighbors and the world through that sector. It is unfortunate that teachers are the first to pay the price for the lack of reform by losing their rights. The Lebanese economy is paying for both the money being squandered and the missed opportunity for the economy and future generations.

The educational sector was and still is one of Lebanon’s most important distinguishing features. This is not surprising for a country that used to be called the “school of the Middle East.” The numbers and data issued by the World Economic Forum emphasize this. The latter’s 2014 Global Information Technology report ranks Lebanon 13 out of 148 worldwide in “quality of educational system,” owing to its high standards. Lebanon’s educational sector ranks second after Qatar’s among the Middle East and North Africa. However, this is all thanks to the private sector. The public education sector needs deep restructuring, as recommended by the report released earlier this month by the Lebanese BLOM Bank.

Reforming public education should focus on the number of teachers and their performance, particularly in math and science, according to the BLOM report. The numbers showed a contradiction: Although Lebanon ranks high globally, its scores, according to the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study, are 406 in science and 449 in math, which are below global averages. This is clear evidence of the abysmal gap between public and private education in Lebanon.

If we look closely at the figures, we see that half of the 41,000 teachers in the public sector have university degrees. We should also note that the student-to-teacher ratio in 2013 was 7-1 in public schools and 13-1 in private schools. Thus, the public education sector has too many teachers and performs poorly.

The problem is not the amount of money being spent on public education, but excessive waste and low productivity. Public education is less than 7.1% of public expenditures, which is below what developed countries and neighboring countries spend. In 2011, public spending on education was 14.2% of national budgets worldwide and 18.6% in the North Africa and the Middle East. Spending on education is an investment and increases economic productivity, especially in today’s world, the world of the knowledge economy. Also, spending on education boosts the economy and acts as a catalyst for growth because the education sector as a whole constituted 5.5% of the gross domestic product in 2011.

The top priority of the new president should be to carefully consider developing the educational sector at the national level and develop the needed strategies to maintain Lebanon’s capabilities in this area. This requires restructuring the public educational sector and the teacher workforce by dismissing those who should be dismissed and raising the salaries of those who deserve it. 

Raising salaries will attract talent and encourage improved performance. It is part of the reform, just like stopping waste. Both reforms are necessary, or else the good will go with the bad. One challenge at hand is to implement balanced educational development for all Lebanese regions, so that quality schools are not confined to Beirut and the north, as the BLOM report indicates.

The energies and expertise of the private sector should be used to accelerate the pace of needed reforms. The private sector was the main growth driver for the educational sector in Lebanon. Some circles have asked, why not entrust the private sector to run the public educational institutions by using the voucher system? This measure may lower expenditures, and the public-private partnership law may constitute the ideal framework to move forward with this strategic reform.

This would contribute not only to controlling public finances and boosting growth but also to building fundamental human resources, further helping to improve happiness in an environment that is surrendered by despair and terror. Education is the first course of action in the strategy to eliminate terrorism, which accounts for the bulk of today’s local and global interests. Thus, this reform may find many funders and supporters if the vision and intentions are there.

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