Behind the Lebanese University strikes

A university fragmented

Photo by Greg Demarque
Reading Time: 4 minutes

My father returned to Lebanon in 1994, 10 years after the civil war forcibly exiled him to France. He thought that his PhD from Sorbonne University, coupled with extensive academic publications, would be sufficient for him to find a decent teaching job at the Lebanese University (LU). He soon realized the error in his assumption when he was told that due to his past political affiliations, “only Ghazi Kanaan or Nabih Berri can get you in.” It was only in 2008, after 14 years of teaching under contractual working hours, that he eventually got a full-time position. My father’s case, however, is not an exception. A five to seven year wait for a full-time contract is the standard period; others have even waited for as long as 15 years.

The full-time employment of contractual professors and the tenure position for full-time professors was one of the demands of the spring strikes. However, this has been a recurring demand that, since the early 1990s, has led to yearly sporadic strikes and long-term sustained strikes. The fragmentation of faculty between contractual (paid per hour), full-time (paid monthly based on yearly automatically renewable contracts), and tenure track professors (open-ended contracts) reflects the system of dependency and control that the Lebanese political class has imposed on LU’s professors since the end of the post-civil war period in the 1990s.

Political pressures

 This system, based on political affiliations and sectarian balance, has come to determine people’s job stability, academic achievements, research grants, and access to managerial and academic responsibilities. It has subsequently created, in the Marxist sense, a dynamic of alienation, i.e. a loss of essence and self because of the stratification imposed by the political class, and its constant and continuous loyalty checks at each step of the way. Certainly, as an institution, LU is constantly occupied by protests and demands related to the status of university professors, who are new and highly-qualified while job and income insecure.

The Lebanese political ruling class puts the university under constant pressure through the control and alienation of its faculty and through the fragmentation of the university’s regional branches. Beyond the idea to open branches in major cities (e.g., Tripoli, Saida, and Zahle), the regional branching extended starting in the early 2000s to a long list of towns that do not facilitate the mix of students from different backgrounds, such as Baalbek, Rashaya, Aley, and Nabatieh. This policy has put extreme pressure on the university’s budget and, by doing so, has reduced the quality of education and the student life experience.  

 A key element of the strike was the focus on the importance of keeping the university budget, and potentially increasing it to further allow advancement of research and improvement. It was clear for the leaders of the spring strikes that further budget cuts meant the end of LU and the subsequent privatization of higher education in Lebanon.

Shaking the establishment

Another demand, which strikers were set on, related to the privileges provided to LU’s professors through their mutual fund, namely better health coverage than other state employees, as well as tax-exempted higher education funding for professors’ children ranging from LL5 million ($3,333) – LL10 million ($6,666) per year, depending on the age of the child. By my own estimate, payment from the fund can range from 10 percent of the yearly salary for professors with one child in kindergarten, to 40 percent of the total salary for professors with three children enrolled at university level. The issue of the mutual funds also raises questions about the overall health and education policies of the Lebanese government that aim at unifying all health and education payments for state employees, as per reforms detailed under Law 46 (2017) on salary scales. A sound policy reform should ensure universal health coverage and improvement of public school, but these remain far away from the policy agenda. University professors are incentivized to remain mainly to ensure a proper education for their children because of the mutual fund’s education subsidy. 

 While the 2019 spring strike put forward a long list of demands, the main political constraints that hamper the development of LU and the improvement of its program and infrastructure remain issues related to the control of the ruling class over faculty, the fragmentation of the university branches and its pressure on the budget, and the system of incentives proposed to the professors. This system is typical of the Lebanese administration’s approach that provides indirect subsidies to the private sector of what should be essential rights, such as health and education, while trying to reduce long-term pension indemnity costs that are calculated based on basic salaries. (By reducing basic salaries and increasing extra benefits—such as daily transportation stipends or school payments, for example—a package can seem acceptable to an employee in the short term, but with pensions only calculated on basic salaries, this will have negative consequences for them in the long term.)

 The 2019 spring strike is different from previous strikes because it directly tackled the key issue that constitutes the backbone of LU—the political ruling class. By shaking the establishment, the leaders of the strike have been able to force Parliament and the government to amend the budget law, and meet all the demands made of them—with the exception of an additional five years of pension, and full-time posts for contract teachers (making it highly probable these professors will strike again early in the next academic year). More importantly, by refusing to follow political parties calls and instructions to stop the strike, protesters have inspired hundreds of professors out of their alienation for the first time since the end of the civil war.

Kanj Hamade

Kanj Hamade is an assistant professor of agricultural economics and rural development at the Lebanese University.

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