High, High, Higher... Education in Lebanon!


Do you wonder what will happen in five years?
I will free my wings, I will go wherever I want,

Like a butterfly, untethered.
I will be that bird, with all its confidence and strength.
Knowledge will be my only weapon,
The weapon with which I will fight their ignorance.

My company for breakfast today was this poem by a 16-years old girl, Wissal Al-Jabr, written in Alsama Poem Collection by adolescent refugee children from camps in Beirut. Little did I know that the day would present a variety of opportunities to understand the aspirations, dreams, and desires through the educational landscapes of Lebanon. In the afternoon, we headed into the beautiful scenic campus of the renowned American University of Beirut, the AUB. The AuslandsAkademie delegation met Dr. Joseph Bahaout, Director, Issam-Faris Institute (IFI) of Public Policy and International Affairs, and his team. Our foundation has special ties with the institute- whose building looks like a spaceship. This is an ongoing collaboration supporting the electoral lab for fantastic quality research and development work. Our visit to the centre primarily had two-fold objectives:

  1. Understanding the history and status of the higher education landscape in Lebanon, and 
  2. Deliberating possible futures amidst the ongoing economic and political circumstances.



History and Evolution

In the second half of the 19th century, around the gradual collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the rise of European empires, the region experienced a significant quest for modernization. These modernization traits were not limited to trade, craft, and culture but transcended the idea of human intellectual capital through cutting-edge, high-quality modern education set-ups in Beirut. The USA, which was still not a superpower then, enabled American protestants to establish the American University of Beirut in 1866 to spread evangelical ideas. The French Catholics countered this by supporting the establishment of Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth (USJ) in 1882 to counter the AUB Protestants. For the first time, this era marked the beginning of knowledge and educational and intellectual enlightenment beyond the traditional Islamic teachings. Hence, Beirut became the first place in the Arab world for modern Education by becoming the hub of scholarly activities in the Middle East and contributing to modern Lebanon's creation. As a result, the educational spaces in Beirut thrived towards excellence in scientific, intellectual, and political activities. This period also contributed to the conceptualization and inception of modern Arab and Lebanese nationalism ideas. 

Further, backed by the then progressive political leadership of the country, another university, the Lebanese University, was founded in 1951, giving free education to all in Lebanon. While the thriving golden age of excellence and exploration was yet evolving, the country got marred by the civil war in 1974, which saw the city of Beirut religiously separated into the western and eastern parts, divided by the green line. The civil war was a big blow to the thriving intellectual landscapes of the region, which saw the university campus being attacked, bombed, and the assassination of AUB's president, Malcolm Kerr, on one of the staircases in the University. The intellectual circuit of Beirut and the universities still bear scars of war and history. What followed the civil war was tragic on multiple fronts. The rise of the new political leadership and the regime of warlords and mafias led to further intellectual destruction since Education doesn't find space in contemporary Lebanon's political will or political agenda. What once was a thriving space that could lead the region and possibly the world through intellectual and scientific breakthroughs, the universities of Beirut are fighting hard to survive and often revel in their past glory but not surrendering. 

Challenges and Possibilities

Our esteemed host at the AUB aptly highlighted Human Rights, Gender Equality, and Critical thinking as some of the general challenges faced by Lebanese society. Furthermore, Dr. Bahout classified the challenges into the following four categories:

  1. Human resources- reconstruction of the human fabric
  2. Current political climate and discourses
  3. Money and Funding of higher Education
  4. Mushrooming of small private universities (small boutique universities- in his words)

Since the crisis, student enrolment at AUB has decreased by 20-25%, mainly due to monetary reasons or migrations abroad. The same period also saw 210 faculty members leave to move to Europe and North America to search for a more stable environment for themselves and their families. In addition, 82 doctors have already quit the hospital's AUB medical unit so far. A lot of these human resources challenges account for Lebanon's political and economic instability. For a country dependent on imports to meet the demands of its approximately 85% consumer needs, the devaluation of currency at such an alarming rate makes the situation very fragile. The dollarization of the economy seems to have depleted lots of capital resources overnight and has the same effect on human capital. Through the internal observations, AUB estimates more than 80% of its' students are willing to leave Lebanon after receiving their diplomas. It might seem like a shocking aspiration but is not a new phenomenon since Lebanon has the image of an "exporter of brains." However, the usual percentage might have been lower earlier. In addition, the labor market changed, both within Lebanon and outside, especially with the influx of foreign laborers and refugees. 

While the current human capital situation looked so bleak, it was equally heartening to understand the commitment of the human resources that have decided to stay on and the perseverance and resilience of leadership at the University. In the recently concluded elections in Lebanon, seven AUB alumni contested, out of which three won. The Issam-Faris Institute aims at engaging with them more as the center believes that once the AUB alumni become part of public life, they have to take AUB's progressive values along. The ever-expanding Lebanese diaspora and AUB alumni base support the University through funds. These financial and other supports are helping the University's expansion plans, and AUB aims to open a functional campus in Cyprus by next year. At the Issam-Faris Institute, the director seeks to attract more foreign faculty and researchers and involve themselves in more cutting-edge academic research, policy research and channelizing informed policy decision-making by policymakers through seminars and policy dialogue. 

Higher Education in Lebanon is mainly private, and inequality and access to all are significant challenges and issues with socially equitable higher Education. Simultaneously AUB is trying to channel knowledge and resources to Lebanese University and feels that Lebanese University should be the space for Higher Education for those who can't afford the best four universities. Though this seems like a noble idea, there might be a need for liberalizing higher Education. AUB seems opposed to the notion of "mushrooming boutique" private universities. Its president establishes a consortium with the top four leading universities in Lebanon to counter this phenomenon and advocate the push by proposing a cap on the number of universities in the country. The concerned and influential intellectual groups could join forces to design and support a more inclusive approach by proposing a new education policy that gives wings to the able and committed education entrepreneurs to develop and deliver quality education to all in Lebanon. This can be a long-term solution and might benchmark an ecosystem design for the countries in the region. Another idea worth exploring might be about forming an association of private universities for knowledge sharing, co-learning and defining self-regulation norms and quality standards. This would ensure harmonised quality of education as well as a conducive environment for the potential investors and education innovators. 

AUB offers many opportunities and support to intelligent but poor students in financial aid, as approximately 60-70% of AUB students receive some financial assistance already. While currently, the university fee and staff salaries are in Lebanese Pounds, the administration has decided to change the transaction currency to US Dollars the following year, which might create another set of challenges. The conversation also touched upon the exciting topic of exploring whether the Education within the AUB campus brings into the existing sectarianism in the Lebanese political and social system or not. It was interesting to know that the University prides itself on keeping sectarianism "outside its gates" and to the extent that the religious identity is not even asked about during the application process as well. However, every student of AUB has a compulsory study component for studying the Bible, the New Testament, and the Quran. 

For a country struggling with the wars, social, religious, and economic stability, Education and skills still seem to be an important motivating factor and incentive for the youths and families. There is a deep-rooted value in Lebanese society that Education has the potential to change fate and achieve transformations. This conversation made us understand the realities through the lenses of past glory and immense future hopes. After this, we will be keenly following the higher education developments in Lebanon, while some of us have already put our plans in motion to return and contribute to some of these developments. Private Institutes like AUB were critical to drive Lebanon to a higher peak and more such institutions are necessary to move Lebanon, the region, and the world towards a better tomorrow. Hopefully that would happen soon enough, and Lebanon soars high and high through it's higher education!

Nitesh Anand: Student of M.Sc. Politics and Technology at Technical University of Munich