“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” so said Nelson Mandela in a 2003 speech. Indeed, the impact of quality education—the kind that expands the learner’s mind and aids in the development of a well-rounded personality—resonates long after the optimal 18 – 20 years of formal education (15 years of school, followed by at least three years of tertiary education for some). This form of education would make one much more competitive in the job market—and more likely to perform well and grow in a chosen career path—ultimately benefiting the economy. An educated mind can also develop innovative solutions for social or environmental problems plaguing the country or launch businesses that would benefit the country as a whole.
Lebanese families have traditionally valued education, seeing it as an investment into their children’s future. Of Lebanon’s students, 70 percent go to private schools, which are perceived to be of better quality than public schools, yet they can vary significantly in price and quality. It is sad then that high-quality schools in Lebanon are becoming increasingly inaccessible to the majority of Lebanese who simply cannot afford them. We all remember the story of George Zreik, who died earlier this year after setting himself on fire in protest over being unable to afford tuition at his child’s private school. Increasingly higher tuition rates, coupled with a dire economic situation and a higher cost of living, are making quality private schools an impossible dream for more and more parents. Meanwhile, private schools that cater to mid- to low-income families are themselves struggling under the toll of paying teachers’ salaries, which were finally increased by Law 46 (2017). Oftentimes this comes at the expense of curriculum development and school enhancement. Quality education in Lebanon is, therefore, becoming increasingly segregated between the wealthy—who can afford to pay the tuition fees in the top-tier private schools or universities—and the middle- to low-income families. Those families constitute the majority of the population in Lebanon, and unfortunately their children are largely not receiving the kind of education needed to equip them with skills needed for the jobs of the future.
It is infuriating that despite the proven value of quality education and its impact on the economy—and despite the bleak state of the education sector in Lebanon these days—the Lebanese government still prefers to invest in bricks and mortar, meaning infrastructure, rather than investing in the development of its own people. Prime Minister Hariri’s big win prior to the 2018 elections was to secure pledges for $11 billion in loans and grants at the April CEDRE investment conference—and since then the focus has been on how to implement the fiscal reforms needed to unlock these loans so that urgently needed Capital Investiment Plan (CIP) projects can be tackled. But what is the share of education projects in the CIP list? None. Why is education not a priority for this government? Education is a sector that will have a higher return on investment in the long-term and create more jobs than any infrastructure project.
It is high time that the government takes education more seriously and prioritizes it. We realize that this is a vast sector, with many challenges and aspects in need of reform or restructuring. But the simple act of recognizing education’s significance for the future of Lebanon and dedicating the energy and mental power needed toward the betterment of the education system—and toward making it accessible for all Lebanese children—is a start.
This translates into finding members of Parliament who are more engaged with education; those sitting on Parliament’s education committee need to be appointed less because of their political affiliations and power interests. They should be selected based on their knowledge of the subject matter and their dedication toward the improvement of the Lebanese school system. The head of the committee should be open to discussing the proposals and initiatives they are working on instead of refusing to give interviews to any media outlet (which is what Executive was told when we approached Bahia Hariri’s office for an interview).
We realize that money is tight, but the government needs to allocate more of the fiscal budget toward making quality education accessible to all Lebanese (we stress on quality education because while public schools are free in Lebanon, their quality, based on the limited resources they have, is questionable). The way in which they do that has to be relentlessly discussed and debated in the educational committee meetings and in parliament sessions. It has to be made a national priority.
There have been certain steps in the right direction—such as the introduction of computer science classes in the middle school classes (or cycle 3) of 553 of the 875 public schools in Lebanon, according to the Center for Educational Research and Development—and they are to be applauded. But they also need to be built upon if the goal is the overhauling of the education system.
If our government truly stands behind quality 21st century education as a basic right for all of its citizens, not a privilege for the wealthy few, and demonstrates its seriousness toward working to achieve that, then we as a country will be reaping the positive results for years to come.