Higher education ‘in free fall’ in crisis-hit Lebanon

Sector faces years of uncertainty after a series of economic and political crises in the country

一月 26, 2023
Ruins After Beirut Explosion
Source: iStock

The ongoing economic crisis in Lebanon has made it “extraordinarily difficult” for the country’s universities to operate, it has been warned.

A series of overlapping financial crises in recent years – alongside continued after-effects from the Covid-19 pandemic and the Beirut explosion in 2020 – have caused havoc in Lebanese higher education.

A historic capital of knowledge, the country will not be the “university of the Arab world again”, said Adnan El-Amine, professor of education at the Lebanese University.

Speaking at a conference organised by the Higher Education Research Group at the University of Edinburgh, he traced some of the country’s issues in higher education back to the political instability of the 1970s and a rapid growth in the number of private universities created from 1990.

Dr El-Amine said this clientelism and expansion was uncompetitive and “doomed to [a] decline in quality” – even before the “free fall” that has occurred since the end of 2019.

Political uprisings, the collapse of the Lebanese pound and the highest per-capita refugee population in the world have contributed to an economic crisis that the World Bank has called one of the worst in centuries.

On top of this, Beirut is still recovering from an explosion in 2020 that resulted in billions of dollars in damage to the capital.

Higher education has faced two big tests since 2019 – the pandemic and the economic crisis – and Professor El-Amine said most institutions have failed them both.

Universities that were less digitalised found it harder to adapt to the distance learning enforced by the pandemic, while the economic crisis has led to a deterioration in universities’ financial resources and huge inflation.

A fall in living standards led to a series of strikes by professors, with many members of faculty leaving the country for more secure jobs elsewhere.

Professor El-Amine said this has “impoverished” higher education academically – at both private institutions and the Lebanese University, the country’s only public provider.

Neighbouring countries – which used to send their young people to Lebanon because of the quality of its education – have either developed their own universities or send their students elsewhere, he warned.

“The prospects for higher education in Lebanon in the coming years are shrouded in uncertainty and negative expectations,” Professor El-Amine said.

John Waterbury, former president of the American University of Beirut (AUB), said Lebanon was “probably the king of brain drain in the Middle East and has been for decades”, with a recent poll showing 80 per cent of graduates wanted to go abroad.

However, this exodus – and the money they send back to the country – was necessary to sustain the country’s economy today, he added.

“The export of Lebanese talent is vital to sustaining the system and it’s highly unlikely it’s going to maintain any more of its graduates today.”

He said economic collapse – which has made operating “extraordinarily difficult for any kind of university with these kinds of exchange rates and constant devaluation” – was the underlying reason behind AUB’s decision to open a new branch in Cyprus.




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