Education first?

On Monday morning, April 19, hundreds of Lebanese educators, academics and policy makers took their seats in the UNESCO Palace auditorium to listen to a series of presentations on what the ministry of education and higher education (MEHE) billed as a preliminary framework for a national education strategy, the final version of which will be released in October.

Unfortunately, for many in the room, the topic, as well as the specifics of what was discussed seemed all too familiar. Indeed, some skeptics of the ministry’s latest efforts say that the real test will be whether the relatively new administration of Samir Jisr will go beyond the work of his various predecessors to actually implement some badly needed reforms – many of which have been on the table since the mid 1990s.

Moreover, several experts, including members of the government itself, wonder whether all the new efforts are being adequately coordinated with various other stakeholders, like the ministry of labor and private sector concerns, in what they say must be a serious effort to finally develop a comprehensive, multi-sector human development strategy for the Lebanese workforce.

With youth unemployment estimated at a whopping 40%, the continued emigration of skilled university graduates (for whom unemployment is almost as much a fact of life as it is for lesser skilled workers), and a bruising public debt, time may be running out for reform.

“People are tired of this,” said American University of Beirut (AUB) education professor Munir Bashshur. “Everybody knows that the question is not really a lack of a strategy. You can have all the strategies and plans you want. But if you don’t really have the political will to move forward, it is not going to happen.”

Indeed, since the mid 1990s, the Lebanese government has produced a series of earnest policy statements aimed at improving Lebanon’s education system – a system that includes almost one million school-age students spread across more than 2,800 public and private schools, 84,000 teachers and a budget that is more than LL812 billion annually.

While there are many reasons why education reform has stalled in Lebanon, the notion that the country must address its economic problems first before human development reforms could even hope to work, has created a particularly unproductive obstacle – even if, at first glance, it appears valid.

If students are more skilled, the argument goes, they will simply leave the country – if they are able to – because the absorptive capacity of the job market is severely limited. So why focus scarce resources on improving education?

This argument has been conveniently buttressed by the inwardly complacent conviction, expressed at many different levels, that Lebanon is itself an “island of educational excellence” – that instead of some schools, mainly private ones, being individual “islands of excellence,” as the UNDP has put it, the entire education system is a sort of jewel in the Middle East. This is where the argument moves from being merely unproductive to downright destructive.

“You find the worst kind of schools in Lebanon and the best kind of schools in Lebanon. The mixture is amazing,” said Bashshur, dismissing any illusions to the contrary. “What is good in Lebanon, however, is because of the private system. What is bad in Lebanon is because of a lack of coordination between the private and public [systems],” he added.

And indeed, if one looks at the available statistics (of course, the poverty of statistics is certainly a huge part of the problem), there is a welter of evidence to support his claims. 35% of all youth between the ages of 14 and 19 are, in effect, school dropouts. The average age of teachers is approximately 50, with only 38% of primary education teachers holding a license (among the lowest percentages in the Arab region).

What’s more, few teachers have undergone regular professional development, much less the kind of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) training that is increasingly so vital for the new economy. Not surprisingly then, as the last UNICEF State of the Children in Lebanon report put it, “the education level of our population is poor. 45.22% [of the population] have not completed the basic schooling necessary for social integration at all levels.”

Lebanon is also burdened by the fact that it spends vastly more per pupil than neighboring countries ($1,122 per student in primary education and $938 per student in secondary education; see chart for comparison). While this normally would be a cause for celebration, it is unfortunately more an indication of inefficient resource allocation, a deep level of corruption rooted in confessional politics and the degree to which the entire system is geared more to the employment needs of teachers, rather than the educational needs of children. Indeed, the Lebanese Transparency Association has reported that some schools, particularly in the South, even have more teachers than students – a costly proposition to say the least.

With an overall pupil to teacher ratio of 9:1 in Lebanon’s public schools – a figure that should be the envy of the entire world – and with a costly system of educational subsidies for the children of government employees – who often move their children into the private system at taxpayer’s expense – the idea that Lebanon’s school system costs so much generally provokes only shrugs from experts and government officials alike who are all too familiar with the profligacy and gross inadequacies of the current arrangements.

Another discouraging aspect of its high per pupil cost is the fact that according to UNDP’s 2003 Human Development Report, Lebanon’s spending on education as a percent of its GDP (3%) is less than that of other countries in the region like Saudi Arabia (9.5%), Israel (7.8%) and even Syria (4.1%). Although Lebanon’s system is expensive, it is, paradoxically, not funded like the national priority that many say it should be.

Perhaps more problematic than the corruption and inefficiencies though, is Lebanon’s approach to education – an approach that many experts agree is simply not getting the job done at either the purely pedagogical level or at the level of responding to the actual demands of the labor market.

As a March 2004 ESCWA report noted, “secondary education in Lebanon is based on a one-track system [where] it is difficult to transfer from one field of specialization to another. Furthermore, higher education is still based on an old-fashioned structure of specialization that is incompatible with the requirements of employment in the 21st Century.”

“In many cases,” said the same ESCWA report, “the education system produces a highly skilled and well-educated workforce that lacks the skills needed in the new economy.”

And the problem is not just confined to the general or advanced education levels; it extends to vocational and technical education as well.

After merging with the MEHE two years ago, the Directorate General of Vocational and Technical Education (VTE), an office charged with transferring skills at a relatively advanced level, is now also facing the hard reality that its programs are not meeting the demands of the labor market.

In order to address this situation, as well as to finally gauge the actual shortcomings of its system, the VTE has been included in the MEHE’s latest education strategy effort – although Ghassan Kabbara, who is coordinating the project for the Ministry’s Educational Center for Research and Development, could not say when the VTE component of the overall project would be finalized. According to the director general of VTE, Youssef Dia, the hope is that once the agency gets a handle on its programmatic weaknesses and gathers precise information about the needs of the market, its bureaucracy can then move from a supply driven training model to a demand driven one that is accountable and, most of all, flexible.

As it currently stands though, VTE, like the general education system, is doing a poor job at what it is specifically responsible for: providing high-quality skills that are in demand. And it is private sector employers that are complaining. According to one World Bank report on the system: “In Lebanon, syndicates representative of different economic sectors have expressed frustration that the training institutions are not producing graduates with the required level of employable skills.”

Also problematic is the fact that VTE’s responsibilities – and thus its ability to both gauge effectiveness and provide ongoing support services – wholly end after a student receives his or her diploma. “Our last contact with them is when we deliver their certificate,” said Dia. The newly skilled student is thus left on their own to compete in a domestic labor market that has not been well understood by the agency that provided the training in the first place.

Of course, it is difficult to imagine that the VTE could even afford such follow up services, much less undertake expensive data collection or market analyses on an ongoing basis, since its own budget is perpetually in deficit. In fact, VTE recently scaled up the number of students it serves from 23,000 students to an astounding 36,000 students – a 57% increase in program enrollment over just one year.

“It is a political decision,” said Dia’s assistant Maurice Rizk. “You cannot say, ‘no,’ we can only take 30,000 or we can only take 20,000 and all the others, we have to throw them out. Our government will not be satisfied.”

Even more incredibly, the increase in the number of students – which was mirrored by an increase in VTE schools from 42 to 66 last year – comes while teachers at 14 vocational schools have not been paid yet. Although VTE asked for LL42 billion this year, it will only get LL25 billion, far short of what it needs to operate at current levels, much less meet the needs of the population.

Given these common themes across the different components of the education system, it is encouraging, say some experts, that the emerging national education strategy is focused on implementing reforms across the board.

“This is a major change in policy,” said education consultant Marquis Bureau, who is a part of the World Bank funded team developing the strategy. “We are at a point now where we have collected regional data, we have a national summary and the next step is to bring the expert content together with the content that we have collected from each region [and] provide the base for which we will address strategic objectives.”

Among its components, the strategy will develop an integrated policy framework for general and vocational education, undertake a labor market needs analysis for both, build a unified Education Management Information System, complete an up-to-date study on education financing, design a professional development program and create a framework for active participation by the private sector.

It is an exhaustive, and not surprisingly, expensive to-do list, to say the least – which is perhaps why decision-makers won’t even speculate on the problematic issue of cost.

Another potential weak spot is the fact that, despite sincere efforts at coordination across bureaucratic boundaries, the Ministry of Labor (MOL) has mostly been left out of the MEHE strategizing process.

According to a spokesperson for the International Labor Organization: “There is some coordination between [MOL and] the Ministry of Education … unfortunately not enough is being done in this regard, particularly with the increasing number of youth leaving the country.”

Significantly, the Ministry of Labor runs its own VTE program, mainly for lower skilled workers, coordinates labor policy and, through the National Employment Office (NOE) and its board, is supposed to collect labor market data, coordinate policymaking with other ministries, and involve the private sector.

But, as Jamal Fakhoury, legal advisor to the minister of labor, explained: “It is not organized between all of these parties involved in the employment affair that is related to the education affair.”

When asked if MOL had been consulted about the emerging national education strategy, Fakhoury said flatly: “we have not been consulted about it. But it does not mean we do not approve … although we could give them so many ideas about it.”

And indeed they could. The MEHE and VTE are aimed at gaining precisely the kind of data and coordination that Fakhoury knows is also vital for the MOL, if it is to reform its own practices. But avoiding duplication and realizing system-wide economies of scale are apparently not high on the agenda of either ministry.

The result, as Fakhoury pointed out, is that the demands of the labor market are not being met by the education system or the MOL, despite its own ongoing reform efforts. As evidence, he cites two sectors that are actually growing in Lebanon – tourism and health care. “The actual graduated or prepared people for the needs of the [tourism] sector are very far below the numbers needed. [Moreover], we have about 200 hospitals in Lebanon, but we have 10% of [the workforce] that is needed. The education system is not producing enough for this sector,” he said.

Fakhoury, like others, hope that the new education strategy and promised reorganization within his own NEO, especially in the realm of statistics, will bring real improvements to Lebanon’s human development capacity – something that will ultimately be reflected in the country’s economic performance. “We are aware,” said Fakhoury at a recent conference on human resource management, “that out human potential is our only real capital.”

For those Lebanese who are either forced to stay in the country because of socioeconomic reasons or who want to stay and contribute to their native land, they can only hope that this time, the government, at its various levels, will finally make good on its promises.

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