Home BusinessAnalysis The Critical Future of Lebanon’s Teacher Supply Chain

The Critical Future of Lebanon’s Teacher Supply Chain

Strikes, emigration and a poor state response place schooling at a critical juncture

by Michael Maalouf

During the last four years, Lebanon’s education sector has undergone major changes due to the economic crisis, political instability and social challenges which resulted from the Covid-19 pandemic. As teachers became affected by the worsening economic conditions, schools started witnessing the migration of key members of their faculties, which in turn has led to the deterioration of the quality of the education system as a whole. The Lebanese government, along with public and private educational institutions so far have failed to form a sustainable plan to help teachers cope with the crisis, leaving the future of Lebanon’s education uncertain. 

Public school teachers have been among the most impacted by the economic crisis and the relentless depreciation – interspersed with an ineffectual and insufficient official devaluation – of the Lebanese pound. A survey and study conducted in 2022 (prior to the official 90 percent devaluation of the Lebanese pound) by the Center for Lebanese Studies (CLS) on Lebanon’s education sector challenges indicated that an estimated 39,000 public school teachers and 50,000 teachers in the private sector have been placed under austerity. Recent indications of purchase power degradation of teachers’ salaries denominated in the Lebanese currency are compelling not only in the form of local price inflation data but also in the form of labor action through desperate teacher strikes and demonstrations in front of the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE). All indicators leave no doubt that the income situation of the vast majority of teachers has worsened by a further magnitude in the first quarter of 2023. 

There are more private schools in Lebanon’s education sector than public; there are over 1,600 private schools and 1,256 public schools. The extreme depreciation of the Lebanese pound means teachers have watched their salaries lose more than 98 percent of their value since 2019. Once considered a stable – if underpaid – profession, teachers are now struggling to meet basic needs as transportation, electricity, and medicine prices have all undergone three-digit inflation rates, placing them out of reach for huge swathes of the population. For example, as per the CLS report, the average estimated commuting cost per month last year was $128, and the average salary amounted to $131. The disparity has left many teachers unable to go to work. Some teachers had to resort to coping strategies, whether having to borrow money to cover their living expenses or seeking secondary incomes from jobs such as working in restaurants, sales or setting up online shops. 

Brain drain

Migrating to teach abroad has emerged as one of the few viable options for Lebanese teachers. The 2022 CLS study estimated that three-quarters of teachers are planning to leave Lebanon. However, a skills gap is hindering some from meeting the standards required to teach at international institutions, and as a result many have reportedly been going back to university to pursue master’s degrees in education before traveling. In tune with Lebanon’s widespread data scarcity, it is difficult to source an exact number of teachers who have emigrated since the crisis aside from anecdotal evidence. However, Karim Bassil, a primary school teacher who moved to teach in Kuwait last year, tells Executive that his school and other schools in Kuwait have recently recruited Lebanese teachers, who with their education degrees and extensive years of experience are in high demand by schools in Gulf Cooperation Council countries, as well as Iraq, Egypt and Africa. 

“The dire economic conditions and outdated Lebanese school curriculum have made education professionals feel out of place and unable to be innovative and creative in their teaching [and] this in turn motivated them to leave the country,” Bassil says. He adds that most of the teachers who have left are receiving wages ranging from $1,500 to $3,000, as well as house allowance and insurance from the schools they joined. Even with the financial boon, however, challenges remain, like adapting to a new education system and cultural setting, especially in non-international schools in the Gulf where Lebanese teachers had to adjust their teaching approach.

Those left behind

For teachers remaining in Lebanon, coping with what World Bank researchers called one of the worst economic depressions globally since the mid-19th century, has been a difficult task. Besides the aforementioned coping mechanisms such as borrowing and taking on a second or third job, schools have been witnessing frequent teacher absenteeism caused by the surge in transportation costs which has made the simple act of going to school complicated. Abdallah Bou Enek, an education activist and teacher at a major private school in Beirut, tells Executive that teachers have had to also offer private tutoring lessons or have set up a side business; an added stress considering the long hours which are dedicated to working at school. Bou Enek says teachers have stayed for one of the following reasons: a patriotic sense of duty toward the future of the country’s education, free tuition benefits for their children, or the inability to move abroad given the gap in their skills. After many teachers left for more profitable secondary jobs or to teach abroad, private schools have become unable to find and recruit new teachers, which has resulted in lower-skilled teachers filling the gap. “The teacher shortage, along with the economic and social challenges have led to a disappearance of the standards of education that Lebanon was known for,” Bou Enek points out. Some private schools have been able to provide better wages for the teachers by the dollarization of their fees, however, such measures were mostly witnessed in high-end schools that are known to host students from wealthy families. 

Public schools, at the behest of the state, are in a complex condition. With salaries fixed by the government which has neglected implementing any financial support measures or legal rulings, the state sector is struggling to function. “We haven’t been able to open the school in a constant manner as not all teachers are able to give the needed sessions,” the principal of a public primary school located in one of Beirut’s working-class suburbs, explains to Executive. The principal asked not to be identified by name. Due to the ongoing strikes and limited capabilities, both teachers and students have been out of the classroom. The principal says that the school is trying to provide children with an education based on the available resources and capabilities, though this is not sustainable. Eventually, some form of external support will be needed for their survival. According to the principal, there are some schemes from local NGOs that have been working on supporting public schools, although this has been limited and mostly involves schools in remote villages.

The teachers syndicates’ fight for rights 

Both the public and private school teacher syndicates have been working on pressuring both MEHE and operators of private schools for better work conditions for teachers. While each of the syndicates has its own problems and methods of dealing with the situation, both reportedly suffer from internal political divisions, do not have a clear vision of the future and have been unable to secure the rights of the teachers. Teacher strikes have always been a phenomenon in Lebanon and occurred even before the start of the 2019 economic crisis. However, this time the strikes come against a backdrop of school disruption from the pandemic, meaning students have been out of school for concerningly long periods. In January, the public school teachers syndicate announced an open-ended strike which has been ongoing. The head of the committee for contractual professors in public education Nisrine Chahine, tells Executive that teaching, “especially in the private sector has been looked down upon, and there has been a major inequality in the government approach to public and private education.” After several confrontations with the MEHE, Chahine was revoked of her teaching rights within the public school system. In this context, Chahine says, “We are being faced with disciplinary measures for simply asking for our rights, however, we must continue fighting for our rights no matter what happens.”

In the field of private education, Nehme Mahfoud, the head of the private teacher’s syndicate, called for a strike in March, although it lasted for only a few days and was limited to a few schools. He tells Executive that the strikes are a measure taken by the syndicate to pressure some private schools to give better wages or at least provide the teachers with temporary relief to help them cope with the crisis. As the situation does not improve, the syndicate is expected to continue calling for strikes. “Syndicates from all professions must unite and call for a national strike in order to pressure the political system and reach a sustainable solution to the economic crisis in Lebanon,” Mahfoud says. 

The government position

A Lebanese man takes his children back home from school in a mixed Beirut district as some schools shut down on January 18, 2011 amid rising tensions in the Lebanese captial after doezens of young men appeared on the streets prompting fears of violence related to Lebanon’s political crisis, following the announcement that the prosecutor of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon filed his indictment on January 17 for the 2005 murder of former premier Rafiq Hariri. AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID (Photo by JOSEPH EID / AFP)

The MEHE has not yet formulated a strategy to tackle the challenges faced by teachers. Instead, it has only offered temporary solutions, such as financial compensations for public school teachers. One recent measure was a $300 support allowance that was supposed to be disbursed in two stages in March, along with a promised transportation allowance. However, as reported by the National News Agency, the distribution only partly materialized. The transportation subsidy was criticized while others alleged it was not distributed at all. Some teachers regard these compensations as a measure just aimed to avoid further teacher strikes.

Imad Achkar, the Director General of Education at MEHE, tells Executive that there is not a plan to solve the issue of teacher supply as the effects of the economic crisis, especially the depreciation of the Lebanese pound, have created obstacles which stand in the way of forming a sustainable plan. As the situation is worsening, Achkar and other figures from the sector are expecting a reform in the education system to take place by next year. The reform will most probably include the nationwide merge of public schools to ensure more efficiency and decrease costs, considering the number of half-empty public schools running at financial losses. 

“Instead of having three half-empty schools in a certain area we can merge them into one with the best facilities and focus on it,” Achkar says. This move will indirectly remove the surplus of teachers in some public schools and will give priority to qualified and skilled teachers. Achkar acknowledges that Lebanon’s supply chain of teachers is in a critical position, especially since the number of people choosing to study teaching has dropped. For example, the Lebanese University, which usually has the largest share of education degrees students, currently has around 120 education students. He adds that well-skilled teachers have left the country, while the teachers who remain are shifting to other industries to make a living. The country will eventually face a total collapse of the educational sector if the economic and political situation does not improve, Achkar says.

Band-aid relief

Despite the critical position of public and private schools, answers to the problem are limited by a lack of funding. However, even when external financial support has materialized in the past, it has been reported that the MEHE and private schools have poorly managed funds donated by international organizations such as the United Nations and the World Bank. Experts have called on donor and funding organizations to form transparency and accountability mechanisms, such as producing public evaluation reports about funded projects, recruitment mechanisms, and spending and decision-making, to curb opportunities for misuse. 

Amidst all the trouble, Antoine Medawar, the general director of Collège Saint Pierre in the rural town of Baskinta, was able to provide funding for the school during the past three years, and as such managed to maintain the school’s teacher supply. “There are three rules that a school director must follow to maintain the school’s teacher supply,” Medawar tells Executive. “The first one is treating the teachers with respect and dignity, [second is] making teachers feel as if they are partners with the school, and finally, giving them a salary that meets their basic needs.” The funds were provided in coordination with various NGOs, and to gain their trust Medawar followed a transparent approach. He gave these organizations access to balance sheets and invited them to visit the school to check the progress for themselves. In addition, the school is giving the donors a monthly report that includes the expenses, receipts and projects that it is doing. This approach has attracted many donors to come and support the school. But as the situation for education in Lebanon remains precarious, the options to confront such challenges might remain limited to private initiatives like Medawar’s, which lay the groundwork for continued positive action amid the crisis.

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