Reinventing Lebanese education for an uncertain future

No student left behind

Photo by Greg Demarque | Executive
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The third discussion in Executive’s roundtable initiative was designed to cover a broad selection of topics—regarding health, education, and labor—under the banner of social development. Already a dense focus, the third roundtable was further restrained when it became clear to Executive’s editors that plans to carry out 10 roundtables over the course of November 18 – 22 would be scuppered by two events scheduled to take place that week—the first, a rescheduled parliamentary session that was intended to take place on November 19 amid intense opposition, and the second, Lebanon’s Independence Day celebrations on November 22. 

Folded into the discussion in the organizing phase then was the impact of pollution on human development and—in a last minute move due to the withdrawal of several participants, the focus of a planned roundtable on poverty alleviation was also folded into the mix. It was, by anyone’s standards, an overloaded and ambitious discussion list. Prior to the roundtable, which was held in the early afternoon of November 20, participants were encouraged to consider the following topics: the organization and provision of healthcare, pensions, and education; the development of labor statistics and labor markets; incentives for highly qualified graduates and professionals to work in Lebanon; the need to re-evaluate the labor law; environmental protections, and the impact of pollution on human development.

It was perhaps due to the overloading of this roundtable, along with logistical challenges on the day, that discussions instead were centered on education and the labor market as related to university graduates. Executive’s Economic Roadmap, however, has sections dedicated to developing strategies for improving education and healthcare, a section on combating poverty and pollution, and a section on developing labor. This is born out of our belief that all these elements of social development and capacity building are essential to move the economy—and indeed the country—forward. When applicable, the roadmap has been amended to reflect relevant points submitted by email or form by both participants and the wider public.

The quality of education 

The discussion began with a reflection on education for the 21st century and how, in the views of the moderator, students in Lebanon’s schools were not being equipped with the tools and skills they needed to excel in the jobs of the future—which the moderator said required education in creativity, curiosity, collaboration, and communication. Participants were then asked for their reflections on these opening remarks. 

Several of those at the roundtable believed that, contrary to the views of the moderator, private education in Lebanon was of high quality and had kept up with the changing needs of the students to become more skill-based than knowledge-based, with one citing various real life examples found in their own work. Participants also noted that Lebanese students have successfully taken the skills they have learned at educational institutions in Lebanon and used them to excel abroad. The issue lay, according to one participant, in the inability of students to apply these learned skills in Lebanon—something it was believed was in the process of being changed through youth participation in the thawra.

It was noted that quality assurance measures do not exist at the school level in Lebanon, which creates an uneven landscape for students upon entering higher education.

There was, however, some agreement with the moderator’s premise, with one participant saying that time is running out and Lebanese schools need to catch up fast by teaching the skills needed for life in the 21st century, starting with primary school children. 

It was noted that quality assurance measures do not exist at the school level in Lebanon, which creates an uneven landscape for students upon entering higher education. To resolve this, it was suggested that there should be a regulatory body—made up of both public and private schools and the Ministry of Education and Higher Education—that should set a new educational system, with indicators that would focus on teaching the skills needed for the 21st century. This view was echoed by several participants. The responsibility of the state was seen in terms of standardization, one participant argued that there needed to be a program that would be followed by all educational institutions in the country that was decided upon at the state level.  

The discussion then flowed on to public schools and the vital need for elevating the quality of the education to produce more competitive graduates that would help rebuild Lebanon. A participant suggested that instead of the government draining itself running the public schools, its role should be to simply manage them through inspections and ensuring they adhere to certain standards. This could also be achieved through a public-private partnership, according to some participants. 

The mismatch between education and labor

The mismatch between education and the labor market was also raised by those around the table. One participant noted that an investment in quality education was very costly—estimating it to be $500,000 from pre-school to university—and questioned how many years of work in Lebanon it would take to recoup that investment. This argument was furthered by another participant who said that there needed to be an understanding of the cost relative to the returns in order to be table to address both. While the costs of private education are known, it was argued that data on the cost per student to the state of public schooling or a degree from the Lebanese University was lacking. It was also suggested that a study should be taken to survey the incomes of students of private education institutions from the past five years to determine the average income in relation to the upfront cost of their education.  

The discussion on the mismatch between the skills of Lebanese graduates and their labor opportunities continued, with one participant noting that Lebanon suffers from a nonproductive economy whereby we have 30,000 graduates every year, and yet only create around 3,000 to 4,000 jobs, which are mostly in the public sector and so are relatively low-skilled. 

Beyond this, they continued, the mismatch was impacted by two interlinked phenomena: corruption and clientelism. It was argued that in Lebanon it was immensely difficult to open a business, complete official paperwork, or get a good job—one for which you were qualified—without wasta or being from the right sect or political party. What was needed was a reorganization of the political system into one that could move Lebanon toward a productive economy and open up the labor market with equal access to all those qualified, participants argued.

What was needed was a reorganization of the political system into one that could move Lebanon toward a productive economy.

There was also a consensus around the table on the need to obtain data on labor market outcomes to guide strategies in education development. Several participants noted that in order for the discussion to move forward and practical measures to be agreed upon, it was necessary to know the baseline from which we were starting in order to determine key indicators of success. Lack of data to assess the current situation and, therefore, its needs was a theme raised throughout the roundtable initiative. 

Hopes & dreams

Beyond this, participants also questioned what the goal of education was, with one quesstioning whether they believed education was a means to an end, or an end in itself, noting that there were other outcomes to education beyond economic ones, including improving citizen engagement and civic education. It was noted that if a goal of education was to produce engaged citizens, then students’ and youths’ participation in the thawra was evidence enough of the benefits of the Lebanese education system—though this idea was challenged by another participant who thought that civic education was lacking
in Lebanon.

Also raised by those at the table were questions on what problems were being addressed through the discussion—was it reach of education, consistency across schools, the outcome of education, or its cost? Defining the problem clearly was seen as a necessary first step to
tackling it. 

Amid closing comments, it was asked that the Ministry of Education and Higher Education apply existing regulations when it came to the inspection of institutions of higher education, and especially when it came to issuing of
graduate degrees. 

Another closing remark was a practical suggestion related to the strengthening of students’ skills versus their knowledge base, which recommended extracurricular activities between private institutions of education and civil society (charitable organizations for example) whereby students could learn a variety of real life skills.  

This roundtable highlighted the value all participants placed on education as a vital building block for almost all pillars of a functioning

Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut. Send mail