A CLASS ACT

Lebanon 2013 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | REVIEW: EDUCATION

Lebanon's well-known universities remain steadfast amid instability in the region, demonstrating the local education system's attractiveness and prestige.

Recognizing that the success of the local economy largely depends on its human resources, educators and institutions in Lebanon have long focused on training young people in multiple languages in a variety of fields. In 2013, enrollment levels, teacher-to-student ratios, and literacy rates have all shown improvement. Although government expenditures in the sector have tapered off in line with Lebanon's political situation, higher education providers continue to rank highly regionally and globally, reflecting a commitment to education that transcends local issues and conflict in neighboring countries.

Considering political setbacks in the 2000s, funds injected into education have remained relatively steady in recent years. According to the latest figures from the World Bank and UNESCO, Lebanon spends nearly 2% of GDP and 7.1% of total government expenditure on education. Public spending was split nearly an equal 33% among primary, secondary, and tertiary education establishments over the 2011-2012 academic year.

Education resources, enrollment, and literacy are pillars of Lebanon's strong education sector. While primary enrollment reached a high of 108% in 2012, secondary and tertiary enrollment came in at 83% and 58%, respectively, with both male and female students in attendance. The overall literacy of the adult population was 90%, according to a recent UNESCO publication, while 98.7% of school-aged people were literate. In the same study, the number of students per teacher weighed in at 14, and students spent an average of 14 years in school.

The language of instruction in Lebanese schools begins primarily in English or French combined with the local Arabic. However, after primary education, English or French becomes the mandatory medium of instruction for mathematics and science for all schools.

With elementary school students pouring in from conflicted areas of Syria as well as Palestine, many public schools in Lebanon have worked on ways to accommodate the exponential increase in student numbers. In fall 2013, Lebanese authorities collaborated with the UN to place up to 100,000 Syrian refugees into public schools with the support of international aid funds. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Education and Higher Education (MEHE) has agreed to open 70 schools in the afternoon to increase current capacity. If achieved, the plan will provide seats for an additional 21,000 children.

There are currently 30 universities and 15 colleges around the country. In the past, many were non-profit institutions, and the rising number of private investments and for-profit schools has led to a significant increase in the quality of education. However, the for-profit shift has also brought about the challenge of maintaining high-level coursework and competing with other superior-class institutions in the region and beyond. Nevertheless, the authorities have not hesitated to meet the needs of local and international students seeking high-quality education in Lebanon. “There are efforts now by the MEHE and the established educational institutions to ensure the quality of education," Ahmad Dallal, Provost at the American University of Beirut (AUB), explained to TBY. “There are many new laws that are either under consideration or have already been passed by the Ministry. This illustrates that education is in high demand in Lebanon and the region."

The QS World University rankings for 2013 included two Lebanese universities among the 800 ranked. AUB came in at 250th globally and second among 26 Arab nations, while the Université Saint-Joseph (USJ) fell into the 601-650 range in the past three years' rankings, according to Byblos Bank.

FOREIGN RELATIONS

While students from around the region pour into Lebanon, the country's higher education institutions are also looking abroad for inspiration in terms of partner programs and working strategies with foreign universities, as well as new campus locations. Domestically, expanding high-quality education to students from low-income backgrounds is playing a key role in the development of nationwide education.

Considered to be one of the best universities in Lebanon, AUB was established in 1866. Today, the institution offers more than 50 undergraduate degrees and around 70 graduate degrees, including nine recently introduced PhD programs. Demonstrating its appeal to a wide variety of students, the percentage of international students enrolled is as high as 28% from year to year. One contributing factor to its popularity and success is its financial aid budget, which has increased significantly in recent years. “We offer [financial aid] of $20 million a year," Provost Dallal explained, adding “about 40% of our students receive some kind of financial aid." Another factor leading to international success is the university's ability to form numerous international partnerships. In the past four years, AUB has signed MoUs with more than 60 universities, with North American schools a preferred choice. However, the school has begun to see and capitalize on partnership opportunities in Europe and Asia in 2013.

At the Lebanese American University (LAU), about 20% of a total of 8,300 students come from abroad, with North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and the MENA region a few of the top sources. According to Joseph G. Jabbra, President of LAU, “To be a university in the full sense of the term, we must have students from everywhere. Our students come together and experience difference in a very positive way." To meet the needs of its diverse student base, the school is undergoing development with the aid of over $300 million in investment. The construction of a new building on the Byblos Campus was recently completed to become the new Gilbert and Rose-Mary Chagoury Health Sciences Center, home to the university's School of Medicine, the School of Pharmacy, and the Alice Ramez Chagoury School of Nursing. In addition, the university's Engineering School will see an added building for engineering laboratories. With rapid growth across the board, infrastructure expansion at the Byblos Campus alone will require around $25 million of investment. Looking abroad, LAU acquired a recently renovated three-story building in New York, which was inaugurated on September 13, 2013. In addition to serving as the university's North American headquarters, the Manhattan campus will also house a new academic center for courses geared toward US students, such as Arabic language, Islamic banking, and doing business in the Arab world.

With 12,500 students at 21 institutes and 13 schools, USJ prides itself on developing programs that answer to the needs of economic life and that go hand-in-hand with the advancement of technology and science. Currently, there are 40 research centers at the university, and nearly 20% of the general budget is concentrated on research in fields relevant to science and human development, such as biology and medicine. However, recent gas discoveries in Lebanese waters have guided the university in a new direction in 2013. “We are a launching a new Master's degree in oil and gas production and commerce," Salim Daccache, Rector of USJ, told TBY. The program, which is being provided in English and co-developed with international oil giant Total, has attracted students from across the globe, and was slated to begin in September 2013. Although the majority of its students come from private sector schools, USJ has implemented generous scholarship programs to attract more public school graduates. “We have a large budget of about $10 million allocated for scholarships, and approximately 3,000 students benefit from it," Rector Daccache explained. Currently, 7% of the school's student base graduated from public high schools, a number set to increase in the coming years.