Lebanese students face incalculable strife as school returns

Lebanese students face incalculable strife as school returns
7 min read
Society: In Lebanon the start of the new academic year is taking place in the midst of one of the worst economic crises in Lebanese history. Demands that the authorities attend to the most pressing issues, like the exodus of teachers, are mounting.

School administrations in Lebanon have been sending texts to families reassuring them that some of the recently announced fee increases will not go ahead, at a time that the fate of the approaching academic year is unclear. It seems unlikely that schools will open on the intended start date, due to the economic crisis, rapidly deteriorating living standards and the fuel crisis alongside ongoing protests by teachers threatening strike action.

Steep rise in fees

Lebanese families complain that the rise in fees this year was more than 30% in private schools with increased costs for registration, reregistration and stationary. The biggest increase however was for monthly transport which fluctuated from between 400,000 and 500,000 Lebanese pounds (between $20 and $26 depending on the dollar exchange rate on the black market) to a million LBP (around $52) per month.

Previously, these amounts would have covered a whole year's school transport fees – they are more than the minimum wage of 675,000 LBP ($35). Additionally, book prices have skyrocketed and many are unavailable in Lebanese bookshops.

"We decided to move our child from a private school to a public one as his salary wasn’t enough to keep paying the fees and transport costs, let alone the other expenses like internet and electricity. Our income is no longer enough to buy basics like food and water"

Most schools have not made a final decision regarding costs, and have told families that they will be decided soon. Others have decided to increase fees by 20 to 30 per cent, with school administrations leaving the door open for future increases depending on developments and rising operational costs, factoring in the predicted lifting of government subsidies in coming months which will lead to an increase in fuel prices and other commodities.

Rania and her husband work in a private telecommunications company in Beirut and have two children. Combined, their salaries come to around eight million LBP per month (around $440).

"We lived comfortably, our children were going to a good private school and we hoped they'd be able to continue their education abroad. However, now our salaries have dropped in value so much that though we consider ourselves well-off, we've been forced to move the children to cheaper schools which aren't as good. We didn’t want to put them in public schools because of the chaos in Lebanon's public schools right now and because no one is sure what will happen to them this year".

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Joelle, whose husband is an accountant and earns a monthly salary of three million LBP (around $157) says: "We decided to move our child from a private school to a public one as his salary wasn't enough to keep paying the fees and transport costs, let alone the other expenses like internet and electricity. Our income is no longer enough to buy basics like food and water or cover hospital bills. Just calculating expenses and payments is an ordeal in itself".

Amassing profit

Lama Tawil, head of the Union of Parents' Committees of Private Schools in Lebanon, says: "Any increase in costs is illegal and should have been legislated for before being imposed. Even transport fee increases are not acceptable - it's the state's responsibility to subsidise fuel. We clearly asked the minister of education for this before the start of the academic year".

Tawil points out: "There may be schools which are struggling, but they need to disclose their accounts and show they have not been hoarding fees during past years. The General Secretary of Catholic Schools, Father Youssef Nasr, demanded that funds frozen in the banks be released - which means that they had been accumulating profit from fees which violates the law.

"The president and other authorities should call for an emergency education conference to listen to families and support them by forming educational arbitration councils and legislation to protect parents' rights"

"This money should be returned to families. We always stress the importance of financial transparency in schools which is essential for the sector as a whole - families should not be the ones shouldering extra burdens due to the economic collapse. However, they are the ones being left to sink beneath the weight of the worst economic crisis in our history, while also facing the risk of unemployment, poverty and hunger.

"Some administrations are cooperating with parents' committees and relaxing the rules, for instance, around uniforms, so that families aren't obliged to buy new ones and can save money. They are also facilitating textbook exchanges between families. However, some schools are only concerned with profits and have raised their fees and demanded payment in dollars or euros. Unfortunately, we have limited influence".

Tawil is anxious about the coming year, especially how the fuel crisis will develop and also about the exodus of teachers. She mentions that the union suggested teachers be allowed to use school busses which would save them a lot in transport costs. She warns that many families are marginalised and their situation is being ignored.

"The president and other authorities should call for an emergency education conference to listen to families and support them by forming educational arbitration councils and legislation to protect parents' rights".

Lebanese students face incalculable strife as school returns
Funds earmarked for the support of Syrian refugees in Lebanon were siphoned off leading many to call for increased transparency of finances among institutions including schools [AFP via Getty Images]

Drop-outs increasing alongside school closures

Hassan Sarhan, a member of the Active Committee for Teachers in Primary and Secondary Education, warns of the dangerous ramifications which the current societal breakdown could have on education, as security crumbles and families fragment. He points out: "Parents are talking seriously about pulling their children out of school and pushing them towards becoming self-employed or learning a trade".   

Sarhan says: "The educational system in Lebanon is deteriorating rapidly. Our attempt to implement distance learning failed. We can't try it again due to the electricity cuts and the rising costs of private generators and the internet. Many families can't even afford to buy a laptop: last year we were seeing cases where up to three children would be studying using one mobile phone between them".

Sarhan also mentions dangers like "increasing school closures, whether because of the pandemic, or protests, and the fact that many students were granted automatic promotions into the next grade".

He adds: "Last year students passed based on the easiness of the exams, automatic promotion, or having the right connections or political links. All this is a disaster in educational and cultural terms.

"Our attempt to implement distance learning failed. We can't try it again due to the electricity cuts and the rising costs of private generators and the internet. Many families can’t even afford to buy a laptop"

"Tarek Majzoub (education minister in the caretaker government) is determined to start the academic year in the middle of this month, but his team are not in touch with reality - in terms of the rapidly escalating inflation and the spiralling economy - and are making decisions completely removed from most people which only seem to take into account the wealthiest 5% of families who earn salaries over 10,000 LBP ($526)".

Sarhan supports the Lebanese government's plea for urgent assistance from states which have pledged to donate to the education sector. However, he says that Lebanon's past record has not been encouraging.

"There is no transparency. For example, it was exposed that aid money intended for Syrian refugees was plundered and stolen. Private and francophone schools had a lot of financial assistance yet still raised fees. State authorities are wilfully ignoring the destruction of an entire generation's education and thinks the country can be salvaged on the backs of the teachers".

On 8 September a 'Day of Rage' was held in front of the Ministry of Education, organised by the Union Coordination Committee and the Teacher's Syndicate, demanding a pay rise for teachers and the provision of a transport allowance. If these demands aren't met they have threatened to boycott face-to-face teaching.

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Teachers subject to unfair treatment

Rodolphe Abboud, head of the Teachers' Syndicate in Private Schools says: "The day of rage is just the last of a series of actions we have taken, trying to find solutions before the school year starts. Unfortunately, we have been ignored and no practical solutions have been offered.

"In fact, the financial crisis and plummeting living standards have led to an unprecedented exodus in the education sector – and officials keep making decisions which only make teachers’ situations worse".

Abboud stresses that cost increases should not be imposed without a budget, a clear legal mechanism, and a discussion with the union, people’s committees, and the relevant authorities. This has not happened. He thinks it unlikely the school year will be able to start when intended, stating that there are questions around state benefits expected to be decided in September, most notably the issue of subsidies, which could increase the suffering of teachers if not provided.

Lebanese president Michel Aoun stated last week that he will call an emergency conference on the education crisis to help ensure the school year is able to go ahead and provide needed support.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition. To read the original article click here. 

Translated by Rose Chacko