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Lebanon’s economic crisis threatens education sector

Lebanon’s education sector, once prized throughout the Middle East as a regional leader, has been witnessing an irreversible mass exodus with hundreds of professionals in the teaching sector leaving.
This picture taken on March 28, 2022, shows a view of Mufti Hassan Khaled School in Lebanon's capital.

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The future of the education sector in Lebanon never looked more uncertain. It is one of the main casualties of Lebanon’s economic collapse with private schools operating under difficult circumstances and public schools on the verge of collapse.

Schools have already been disrupted over the past three years by a series of events: mass protests starting in late 2019, the switch to online classes in 2020 because of the pandemic, and rising poverty where hundreds of students were forced to drop out.

The public sector has been for decades under-resourced, and now it is under strain. According to a report by The World Bank, in the 2020-2021 school year alone, around 55,000 students transitioned from private to public schools as a result of the financial pressure suffered by families in Lebanon.

Manal Hdaife, a member of the Public Primary Schools Teachers League, told Al-Monitor: “It’s a catastrophe on the already-overburdened sector, as for the academic year of 2022-2023 we are expecting a bigger wave of students moving from private to public schools.”

“I already receive dozens of calls on a weekly basis of parents requesting to enroll their child for the upcoming academic year as they can no longer afford to pay tuition fees for private schools,” added Hdaife.

Private schools make up 70% of the educational sector, but the expected contraction of the economy and increase in the poverty rates will likely lead to more parents shifting their children to public schools in the coming years.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has warned of an increasing dropout of Lebanese children amid the country’s deep economic crisis.

Head of the syndicate for private school teachers Radolphe Abboud told Al-Monitor that every school has lost between 10 to 40 teachers so far, with many fleeing the country, some higher-paid teachers being laid off, and some deciding to stay home due to other associated costs such as transport or childcare.

Three years into a severe financial crisis, the 2022 state budget had not included a pay raise for teachers and had only approved a temporary compensation package.

Nisreen Malaeb, a primary school teacher in the public sector, told Al-Monitor, “Teachers deserve much better as they are truly a backbone of society, but unfortunately we are undervalued by the Lebanese government. Our salaries are not equivalent to the effort we put in.”

Working in both public and private schools to meet ends meet has become common.

“Teachers are brain-drained and they face daily burnout. And for the many, the only chance for a future is outside Lebanon,” said Malaeb.

The World Bank says a record number of high school workers already left.

Teachers have been demanding an increase in their salaries to cope with rising inflation and the collapsing currency as their purchasing power fell by 90%, forcing them to choose how to spend their limited income.

According to Lebanese Minister of Education Abbas Halabi, the state cannot increase teachers’ pay without doing so for army officers, soldiers, judges and other public sector employees. So for teachers in public schools, a pay raise seems far from likely.

Some private schools have increased salaries, but that came with increasing tuition fees. Some are covering transport costs for teachers, and some are offering a monthly bonus.

According to experts like Hdaife, some private schools this year have managed to keep their tuition fees at an affordable price or have provided tuition fee discounts to some families. But for the next academic year, this is very unlikely to happen.

The future of an entire generation has become more uncertain, as raising tuition fees will be at the expense of a student’s education.  

It’s not just tuition fees that have become unaffordable, but also school-related costs including stationery, books, uniforms and transportation.

Teachers are making extra sacrifices with many having to take on extra jobs in order to weather the cost of living in Lebanon’s economic crisis.

A month’s pay is now barely enough to fill a vehicle’s gas tank twice.

Fatima Husseini, a secondary school teacher in the public sector, told Al-Monitor, “I have to walk to school because if I was to use my car, I would have to pay double my salary as transportation is not covered and fuel prices continue to rise.”

She added, “Some male teachers are working as farmers, and some of my colleagues work double shifts and are desperate to take on any jobs in order to make ends meet.”

A number of teachers in public schools have informed Al-Monitor that a temporary allowance of $90 per month is supposed to be paid by the Ministry of Education to teachers but is being held by the banks with nonsense excuses. If it is paid, it is given at the Lebanese rate of 8,000 Lebanese pounds, knowing that the black market is at an exchange rate of almost 35,000 pounds to the dollar.

Funding for the development and maintenance of educational institutions has been absent due to extreme budget deficits.

“We barely have whiteboard pens, white papers or ink to use for printing, so it’s very tough and stressful for us teachers to operate,” said Husseini.

All of the teachers who spoke with Al-Monitor wished to flee the country as soon as possible.

For teachers, the system is valuing productivity over work conditions, and the Lebanese state has no concrete plan to provide convenient solutions.

Many states have been reluctant to provide considerable aid to Lebanon in the absence of governance and macroeconomic reforms.

“Public schools depend on aid from UNICEF to help them continue standing on their feet as the Ministry of Education is broke, but unfortunately we are in a battle with the banks as they refuse to give the full amount of financial aid provided by UNICEF,” said Hdaife.

The currency crash has severely threatened the education sector in Lebanon with underfunding and difficulties in covering basic operating expenses.

With no end in sight to the economic collapse, there is explicit fear from officials at the Lebanese Ministry of Education for what’s next in the future of Lebanon’s education sector, as they are aware of the nearly bankrupt state operating under a tight budget.

Nader Hadifeh, consultant at the Ministry of Education in Lebanon, told Al-Monitor, “There is more uncertainty for the next academic year if the government does not find a cooperative solution as the public sector can no longer cope with the rising inflation.”

“Teachers are leaving, we have an overload of students moving from private to public, and the government is restricting us from recruiting teachers to work in the public sector as they cannot afford to pay salaries from the state’s tight budget, so we have a shortage of teachers,” said Hadifeh.

Officials at the ministry are waiting for the government’s budget for the next academic year, but Hadifeh is pretty certain that it will not be enough with Lebanon’s worsening economic crisis, especially since the public sector will be overburdened with more students.