TBY talks to Hiam Sakr, President of the American University for Science and Technology, on pioneering low-cost, quality education.
TBY How would you characterize the Lebanese education system?
HIAM SAKR In the Middle East Lebanon is considered to be the minaret and the lighthouse of education, even though there are universities everywhere. This is probably due to the long history of university education in Lebanon and to the atmosphere of freedom and tolerance that permeates in the country. Many believe that if one wants to receive a world-class education, one should study in Lebanon as it is a bridge between the West and the East and its academic programs are of the highest caliber.
How is the cost of education impacting the sector?
In Lebanon there are around 40 universities. Some of them identify themselves as the original establishments. They used to dominate the private sector, and only those who could pay big could attend. Students who were not able to pay such fees had to go to vocational schools, which were generally quite cheap. Most people in Lebanon could not afford to send their children to expensive private universities, and students did not want to go to vocational schools. To fill the gap in demand, new universities emerged wanting to help by providing low-tuition education. The purpose was to deliver a good university education at a reasonable cost. Some of these universities are low cost from every point of view: low fees, low quality of education, and the quality of their graduates is inferior to market demands and to acceptable standards. The strategy of the American University for Science and Technology (AUST) is to provide excellent American-style education at a reasonable cost. Our university has an educational mission, not a business money-making mission.
How has the concept of AUST given it an advantage as well as students an opportunity to further their education?
Our mission is to prepare students to become good citizens. We want to provide them with opportunities for work while studying at the same time, to make education possible to those who otherwise cannot cover their expenses. Internally, we are bent on improving ourselves to the position from which we can compete with the older universities that used to have a monopoly on the market. AUST started with 300 students and now it has around 5,000. In a small and democratic country such as Lebanon, students know what they want and set out to get it. In only a few years, AUST has climbed in reputation and the profile of the average student changed to include those who seek good education without concern for low or high fees. In order to meet the influx of students we decided to have morning and afternoon classes. In a way, we operate two colleges in the same facilities and all this is done in order to provide all seekers with the opportunity to benefit from the type of education that we offer. It is important to note that AUST has a special office to help students locate jobs while they study. We believe that this gives them seniority in the future and the proper attitude in future jobs.
Are you working with the private sector to identify where there are available positions?
We organize a job fair every year. In 2011 we had around 130 companies that came to offer jobs to our students. When a student is able to join a firm while still studying, that person gains seniority in the job, and by the time of graduation it doesn’t cross his or her mind to work in the Gulf or elsewhere abroad. Rewarding jobs can be found here. At the beginning, when people went to the Gulf to find work, it was like the quest for gold in America. Now the Gulf’s labor market is saturated, and the salaries are not that different from local ones.
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