Private schools in Lebanon struggle to provide quality education at a reasonable cost

Between a rock and a hard place

Photo by Greg Demarque

This year marked the 200th anniversary of the death of al-Muallem or the master Butrus al-Bustani, a writer and scholar, who founded one of the first schools in Lebanon, Al-Madrassa al-Wataniya (the national school) in 1880. The school was based on national principles and was open to all without discrimination—a change from the religiously run schools that were the only option prior.

Before Bustani’s school—and the others which were established in buildings around the same time—schooling was common place in Lebanon, albeit under oak trees. Madrasset tahet el-sindayneh—literally translated as “the school under the oak tree,” in reference to the school grounds under the shade of a tree in the town square—were informal schools for the village’s children taught by the priest or sheikh for all ages at the same time. Topics of instruction were reading, writing, and math, and students were deemed “graduates” when they mastered those three subjects. Of course, then, as now, there was a distinction in education along class lines; the children of the village’s notable figures were not educated under the oak tree, but through private tutors. 

Regardless of their income level, Lebanese have historically valued education, seeing it as an investment in their children’s future. However, the cost of this investment is becoming increasingly restrictive given the dismal economic situation of the country. 

Executive talked to the administrators of a selection of private schools in Lebanon—largely catering to mid- and low-income students—to see how they are managing to maintain this balance between providing a quality education that meets the demands of the 21st century, and keeping their tuition within an affordable range for parents.

A numbers game

Education is perceived as a noble mission where ideally money should not be an obstacle or barrier to accessing quality schooling, but the reality is that private schools in Lebanon have costs and expenses they need to meet, and can, to an extent, end up operating like any business. According to Mohamad Hamadeh, director of the Philanthropic Islamic Amlieh Association—a non-profit that owns and operates five schools in Beirut—Law 515 (1996) obliges private schools in Lebanon to split their budget between paying teachers’ salaries, operational expenses, and curriculum development, with 65 percent locked in for the former and 35 percent left for the latter two. Based on that division and on the number of students they have, schools then calculate their tuition fees.

Nabil Rahhal (the author’s father), an educational consultant and former board member of Marjoyoun National College, explains that, in Lebanon, teachers begin at a base salary and every two years are granted an increase to this salary. The value of this pay rise (known as darajeh [step] in Arabic) is dependent on their degree and years of experience. This means that a school’s expenses are constantly increasing and accordingly, says Rahhal, schools’ tuition fees are normally increased annually by a single digit percentage.

However, Lebanon’s declining economic conditions have rendered parents unable to afford these increasing tuition fees. “The educational sector is not isolated from the rest of the country and is hit by the economic situation of the country,” Rahhal says.

A law of its own

According to Father Boutros Azar, secretary general of the General Secretariat of Catholic Schools and coordinator of the Association of Private Educational Institutions in Lebanon, schools in Lebanon had been suffering from the country’s economic situation for a long time, but the straw that broke the camel’s back was the passing of Law 46 (2017), which increased salary scales for public sector workers. The controversial law, which was protested heavily by school administrations, but also much fought for by teachers and public sector workers—who had not seen a significant wage increase since 1997—has three components. The first was an increase in the monetary value of the pay rise that teachers earn automatically every two years (from an average of LL35,000 to LL50,000). The second was adjusting and raising the wages and salary scale, so starting salaries increased. Those two components roughly amounted to a 40 percent increase for each teacher, according to Shukri Husni, chairperson of the board and director general of the Learner’s World International Schools (LWIS), which operates four schools across Lebanon. Both these components were implemented by all private schools, says Azar, despite the financial strains they inflicted. 

The law also stipulated that all teachers get six additional pay increases at once, in a one-off move (the equivalent of 12 years of pay increases). For example, a teacher who has been teaching for six years has had three increases in her salary, but will be given the additional six, amounting to a salary jump of around LL300,000.  

This situation placed private schools in a classic catch 22. “Here schools are faced with a dilemma,” Rahhal explains. “They need to increase their tuition fee to pay the increased teachers’ salaries, but if they increase their tuition drastically, parents will no longer be able to afford putting their children in that school, and so the number of students will decrease—negatively impacting the school’s budget and its ability to pay salaries.”

For those schools run by religious bodies—around 70 percent of the schools in Lebanon—Azar says that none were able to grant their teachers the one-off increase, not because they did not believe teachers were deserving of it, but because they simply could not afford to increase their tuition fees any further. “Teachers should surely be recognized for the noble job they do educating our children, but there has to be a balance,” Azar says, stressing on the feasibility of the salary hike. “We have always said that we are [in agreement] with a balanced [between the financial abilities of parents  to pay and the financial needs of teachers to have a living wage], feasible, and fair salary scale.” 

Private schools that cater to low-middle- to middle-income households were also largely unable to finance the additional increases and were open with their teachers regarding the situation. “In our lower fees schools, we paid the new scale—which is a 40 percent increase—but could not pay the additional six increases, which would have given them another 30 percent increase,” says Husni. “If such schools pay the six increases, it will mean that school fees will be significantly raised, which may cause such schools to eventually close. Most teachers do understand this difficult situation.”  Rahhal points out, however, that oftentimes teachers reluctantly accepted not receiving the one-off increase fearing that the alternative would be school closures and losing their jobs.  

School closures

Despite most private schools that cater to low-middle- to middle-income households not providing their teachers with this one-off payment, they are still struggling financially under the current economic situation—some have even been forced to close. Since 2012, when Azar was appointed to his post, Catholic schools have lost 85,000 students from their previous total of 190,000 students. Since applying—some of—Law 46 in 2017, 20 Catholic schools have shut down, bringing the overall total of Catholic schools down to 330 (Catholic schools constitute 5 percent of the schools in Lebanon).

Amlieh’s Hamadeh says the 65/35 percent ratio no longer makes sense as teachers’ salaries are taking up the majority of the budget, leaving much less than 35 percent to cover the bare necessities, such as maintenance of school grounds. “We are in a state of constant deficit, where we have no less than LL1 billion in deficit annually, and it is adding up,” Hamadeh says.  

Closing down a school, says Azar, is never an easy decision as it leaves teachers jobless and students struggling to find alternative schooling options or dropping out of the education system all together—something that nobody wants.

Zawarib – We surveyed schools that taught at all levels, from nursery until Grade 13, and had more than 250 students in total. 
– To gather information on tuition fees, we attempted to call all eligible schools in each area. Some did not answer the phone. Others told us they could not share this information over the phone—insisting that we visit the school in person—or that they were not qualified to give such “sensitive” information to us. 
– The resulting statistics in the map are based on those schools that provided us with information.

Education in tough times 

Adding to the financial woes that private schools that cater to families of mid- to low-income brackets are facing is that a lot of parents delay paying the tuition, or do not pay it in full. “There is a problem for certain, but obviously it differs from area to area and school to school. The more expensive the school is, the less of a problem it has,” LWIS’ Husni says. “This is because the 2 percent of the Lebanese who have money still have money. The people who are losing it are the middle, upper-middle, and lower-middle [classes].” He observes that their least expensive school has the highest rate of unpaid tuition fees—close to 25 percent of parents have not paid the tuition fees yet—while their most expensive school has the least amount of unpaid fees at less than 5 percent. 

It seems that the further away from Greater Beirut, the bigger the impact of the economic situation on schools. Azar says that out of all the schools under his directorate, the ones that are struggling the most are those in rural areas with a small number of students.

Persevering despite it all

In light of these conditions, schools have had to go the extra mile to make their money. When it comes to unpaid tuitions, Husni says they have several options to manage these losses, short of asking a child to leave the school—an act which he finds inhumane. He has a designated team that is in constant contact with parents who have not paid, supporting them in finding options to pay what they owe, and even allowing them to make payment installments through credit cards—although the school pays 2 percent on each transaction. “We are finding mini ways to deal with a situation that is unresolvable in the foreseen future,” Husni says.

Schools have also learned to go beyond the tuition fees to finance the education they are providing. Hamadeh explains that the Amlieh Organization owns the building that houses the Ministry of Finance and it rents it out to the ministry, thereby securing revenues that help their schools finance part of their salary expenses. 

Financial aid can be a way of paying for tuition when schools have the resources to run such initiatives; this typically involves reaching out to alumni and/or the community, according to Rahhal. In the LWIS school network, 12 percent of students in school are on financial aid, the money for which is collected from the four owners themselves—who have each pledged a certain amount in financial aid—and from the schools’ fundraising efforts, says Husni. He also acknowledges that his schools benefit from an economy of scale, with one school sometimes subsidizing the other, and from the money LWIS makes from educational consultancy work outside of Lebanon. “This allows us to have more of an ability to bear losses, but it is more of a cushion than a solution,” Husni explains. “If we did not have this [security], we may have had to consider the closure of the schools with lower tuition in a couple of years, I think.”

Azar says the Maronite church supports Catholic schools by not collecting rent from the schools that are on church-owned land, says Azar. Because rent is a major expense for schools, then through this cost cut, Catholic schools can still manage to keep tuition fees reasonable while paying salaries.

Greg Demarque | Executive

Given these conditions, as Husni puts it, “schools have a mentality of survival not development.” One has to wonder how much these schools are able to invest in a curriculum or infrastructure that would prepare learners for the 21st century. “When you are barely able to pay salaries, how can you develop your academic and physical infrastructure?” Rahhal says. “This is why such schools are teaching students just to pass the official exams. Schools boast that their students have all passed the official exams, but this is not an indication that they have succeeded in developing a well-rounded personality equipped with the skills needed for the digital future.”

Education these days has developed way beyond the chalkboard and textbook approach to include critical thinking and research skills, coding and smart boards, and a plethora of tools and concepts aimed at producing a well-balanced individual who will excel in jobs and fields not yet known to us. Meanwhile, a big portion of schools in Lebanon are struggling just to pay their teachers and remain in operation. Unfortunately, the price will be paid by those students who do not have access to the same quality of education their wealthier fellow citizens can afford.

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.

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