The Lebanese educational landscape

The gap is growing wider

Illustration by Ivan Debs
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Despite large variances in concepts of what constitutes a good education and the curious inconsistency which individuals tend over time to exhibit on the matter, the value of education as a public good is constant throughout history and across societies as diverse as classical Greece, imperial China, and contemporary America. In our global era of universal human standards, education is affirmed in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations and has become elevated from a lofty but vaporous ideal to a target of nations.

But that declaration of promise for every society was 22 years ago. Although progress toward achievement of the SDGs and the predecessor Millennium Development Goals is being achieved and measured, the quest for quality education is still fraught with question marks.

In the context of globalized capitalism since the late 20th century, it has, for example, become a growing trend to glance over or ignore the development of personal values, social competency, and self-confidence that is coherent with an individual’s role in a sane society. But even if one only focuses on the “easier” target of getting a useful education in the sense of its economic utility, the world today, including Lebanon, is faced with growing problems about achieving an education with adequate economic benefits, let alone adopting new targets of education as necessitated by social and technical changes, such as the digital transition.

The financial barrier to accessing quality education applies universally to private households. 

In Lebanon, these problems are exacerbated by one particular barrier, educational financing. This barrier to accessing a quality education applies universally to private households, whether they are seeking to enroll their children in primary and secondary school, or are moving them into tertiary education, of which Lebanon has an impressive number with large variances in reputations and tuition costs.

Stratification into different tuition and quality categories across  Lebanon’s regions frequently begins with pre-school and extends through the educational system, where 70 percent of costs are covered privately by Lebanese families. The top tier of tertiary education in Lebanon generally is perceived as consisting of private universities based in Beirut, such as the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the Lebanese American University (LAU) on the English side, and Université Saint-Joseph (USJ) and École supérieure des affaires (ESA) on the French side. According to the available statistics, about one quarter of the country’s 120,000 students in a given cycle attend one of these pricey universities, as contrasted to about 37 percent that attend the public Lebanese University—an institution that is perennially battling a set of political and administrative challenges. The balance of 38 percent of students in tertiary education are distributed over the fragmented landscape of around 35 privately owned institutions of medium- to medium-high reputation (and commensurate tuition fees), which are legally not-for-profit enterprises and mostly opened in the 1990s and after.

Hisham and Ali

Irrespective of the specific institution and education level, it is easy to get testimonies from parents on the financial challenges. Hisham and Ali are two 40-something fathers. Ali owns a  taxi. Hisham owns a hair salon. Both men are retired from the Lebanese Armed Forces, and both belong culturally and economically to the Lebanese middle class—which today means, primarily, that each of them passionately laments how the leaders in the nation’s political theater cannot be trusted.

In further parallels, both their families include two working parents and children in education and both struggle financially. Ali, who has two kids aged five and 12, is clear on his next major expenses: $2,800 of school tuition for his younger and $3,200 for his older child. “My wife is working full-time. I bought this license and taxi company to be able to give our income an extra push so that I can pay [for] school,” he says, adding with exasperation: “All that I work for is to pay for schooling. It is the same with me as for so many people in Lebanon.”

Hisham is looking at a new level of tuition stress; two of his children will soon enroll in a highly reputed university that will cost around $16,000 of tuition for the year starting this fall, and jump to $33,000 of tuition for both his children one year from now. “I have talked with the bank, and they will give a loan that covers about 30 or 35 percent of total tuition. But how can I pay tens of thousands of dollars each year? I have put a ‘for-sale’ sign on my house,” he exclaims, while the flat screen TV in his hair salon shows live pictures from the budget debate in Parliament. Hisham turns up the volume. Just now, two MPs are haranguing over who should talk for how long. 

The two faces of Lebanese education

As it is with practically all public goods in Lebanon, except for security, the allocation of public funding to education is rather low in international comparison when expressed as a share of GDP. Described in a 2017 education public expenditure review (PER) of Lebanon by the World Bank Group, the government expenditure in the first half of the 2010s was equal to 2.45 percent of estimated GDP and 6.4 percent of all expenditure. According to the researchers, total government expenditure on education was about $1.2 billion annually and slightly below out-of-pocket annual education expenditure of private households of estimated $1.3 billion. Bank loans and structured savings instruments for building up education reserves are available from banks and insurances, but not used extensively in the country (see box below).

When private allocations of funding in Lebanon are taken into the equation, the country’s total expenditure on education reaches a comparable level to what in many other nations is managed under paradigms of progressive taxation, transfer payments to weaker income groups, and public administration.

Moreover, the share of education in total government expenditures has fluctuated rather extensively.  By World Bank data collections, public expenditure on education—consisting of government spending on public and private education institutions, education administration, as well as subsidies for households and other private entities—reached 8.58 percent of all government expenditure in 2013, but in previous years had vacillated between 5.5 percent in 2009 and 2010, less than 6 percent in 11, and a bit over 7 percent in 2016. And the fiscal commitments to education are not encouraging. “While government expenditure in absolute terms has gone up since 2005, the percentage share of education expenditure as a percentage of total expenditure has decreased by 17 points during the last decade,” the PER noted.

The deeper one looks, the greater the disequilibrium between public investment in education and private households’ burden of education expenditures appears. Additionally, whereas investment in education in Lebanon has “high returns” according to the World Bank—when comparing the income levels of people with a university degree against those of less-educated individuals—the opportunity cost, speed, and degree of certainty of labor market returns on investments in tertiary education in the domestic economy of Lebanon are factors of significant concern that are not mentioned in the report. These factors include the high unemployment of labor market entrants, and a high likelihood of university graduates will have to accept jobs that are socially, skill-wise, and geographically distant from their area of study.

Furthermore, the overall level of entry-level remunerations in Lebanon’s difficult economy is at increasing disparity to the growing cost of education. Kim Issa, director of advancement and alumni relations at the International College (IC) in Beirut, teaches undergraduate students at LAU in their final year before graduation. In Issa’s experience, students predominantly have no illusions about what salaries they can ask for if they enter the domestic labor market. If fresh graduates receive salaries of $1,000, or even $8,000 from the more desirable local employers—a reasonable expectation based on the career options offered by major Lebanese banks—the existing dichotomy between domestic salary prospects and education costs at top universities is not abating.

Ample anecdotal evidence from the current student cohorts, therefore, point strongly to the long-standing propensity of bright young Lebanese with top education accomplishments to search for careers almost anywhere else in the world, because the home market has no viable offers for them. 

The quality education at these private schools comes at prices that exceed average private school tuitions up to four times. At IC (pictured) the average elementary school tuition is $11,464 per year.

Thus overall, the aggregate investment that private households in Lebanon make in their education seems to stand in direct inverse relation to the investment made by the public sector and, in an economic sense, to the domestic return on education investments. In this sense, the lack of information on the education sector’s current and expected contributions to the economy and total factor productivity is just the beginning of the opacity on what education means for the GDP of Lebanon.

Assessing the return potentials of education investments in the Lebanese context is made additionally difficult by the extreme long-term character of education investments, and the vagaries of having to make these investment decisions at a time when the aspirations of young students are immensely lacking visibility on the side of sustainable personal occupational inclinations, and on the side of future market demands for their expensive skills and the assessment of how much the education sector contributes to the country’s total factor productivity and GDP.

Even more opaque is the potential of the Lebanese education system when approached under the question if the system will be able to fuel the human capital formation in Lebanon in the near- to medium-term to a similar extent as in the past 50 years, when brains were widely perceived (by the Lebanese and by Arab and other alert employers outside of the country) as the single exportable and internationally most competitive asset. A hint on the questionability of this potential already by existing metrics comes from a barely average standing of Lebanon in the World Bank’s new human capital index.

Placing bets on Lebanese virtues

In Lebanon, there is a definite suggestion that wealth inequality contributes to differences in educational attainment, and also a view that such gaps are not shrinking. With regard to the former issue, the World Bank’s PER highlighted the gap in education attainment between students coming from high-income households and low-income households as very high. The PER said, “Significant wealth inequality exists in the performance of students,” and added “inaccessibility of private schools to the poorest implies that private schools are hindering equity rather than promoting it.”  

Having to agree fundamentally with the analysis that top private schools are not doing enough to promote equity of education in Lebanon, IC’s Issa, nonetheless points to pull-on effects that highly reputed private schools can bring to the education landscape by positively interacting with underprivileged schools. Top schools, which have a survival need to provide prime education methods to their clients, according to Issa, can convey ideas and methodologies such as professional fundraising from their successful alumni to financially less fortunate schools, just as underprivileged schools can be inspired to emulate new methods introduced in top schools such as creation of leadership centers and progressive teacher evaluations.  

In Lebanon, there is a definite suggestion that wealth inequality contributes to differences in educational attainment.

Another field where Lebanon’s education providers can open new ways are related to adoption of future-oriented pedagogical tools and courses. There is a new draft law in this regard that in some minor Lebanese miracle was sponsored by MPs and drafted with a preamble that highlights how important tech education today is for development of the global economy. The draft substantially proposes, to noteworthy detail, adding to the national curriculum lectures that cover subjects such as online ethics, robotics, programming, and artificial intelligence. There are furthermore practical examples from several years of coding programs that give good indications of what works in Lebanon in this regard and noteworthy edtech startups, several of which profess to more than just their next venture-capital raising and economic growth targets.  

In the unlikely event that reform of Lebanon’s public sector thinking would result in a marked shift from the current reliance on more or less clandestine savings and tax avoidance of the upper-third of income earners, with the implied need for out-of-pocket finance of health, education, and retirement by these relatively affluent families to the detriment of those who cannot accrue such savings and who would, in a more redistributive system, be net beneficiaries of financial transfer payments, Lebanon could shift to more active functioning of public administration units in managing education.

The skills, passion, and vision needed for such a radical transformation are in existence, and the required processes are not impossible to fathom for the performance leaders in the Ministry of Education and Higher Education. However, the odds for such a transformation of the Lebanese political DNA seems today nearly as low as the chances for a kid from a one-room village school in the extreme south of Lebanon to receive a scholarship at a top private school with US affiliations.   

The remoteness of a quick change in the public management of the Lebanese education sector under the existing political paradigms is demonstrated by the issue of special education needs. It is as depressing as it is instructive. As MoEHE clarified upon request by Executive, the Law 220 (2000) has not been adequately empowered through issuance of the requisite implementation decrees. Implementation decrees are still outstanding as they need to be “developed and agreed upon by several ministries including the Ministry of Social Affairs, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Internal Affairs, and Ministry of Labor,” MoEHE said.

The skills, passion, and vision needed for such a radical transformation are in existence.

The ministry explained that implementation of education for children with special needs is being pursued in terms of construction or upgrades of school buildings with disabled-accessible infrastructures, in terms of academics, teacher and staff employment, as well as education planning. 

Under the circumstances, the most feasible option of the education system in Lebanon and all aspiring students and parents might be to trust in the national heritage of education as a springboard to the future and reignite or further develop informal, perhaps even wasta-driven linkages that allow underprivileged schools to emulate or inherit some of the advancements that the institutions at the top of the performance ladders in primary, secondary, and tertiary education have adopted.  

As the PER also notes, Lebanon’s education sector was able to cope much better than the country’s habitual internal naysayers and external critics might have expected (resilience in dealing with the refugee crises of the last seven years is another parallel between the public goods of health and education, besides their under-provisioning with fiscal resources).   

The latest reference for the changing story of education is digital. This is the biggest education game changer for the generations that have journeyed through the second half of the 20th century and into the current era—it is possibly even the biggest game changer in the history of education. As Issa says it, “If you do not invest, you will be falling behind, and in the age of digitalization you can become outdated very fast.”

Thomas Schellen

Thomas Schellen is Executive's editor-at-large. He has been reporting on Middle Eastern business and economy for over 20 years.

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