BOOK SMART

Lebanon 2016 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to HE Elias Bou Saab, Minister of Education and Higher Education, on the ministry's initiatives to improve the education system, ensuring access to education for Syrian refugee children, and reversing the brain drain in the country.

HE Elias Bou Saab
BIOGRAPHY
HE Elias Bou Saab was named Minister of Education and Higher Education in 2014, charged with overseeing the Lebanese education system. He co-founded the American University in Dubai, the first US accredited university in the Gulf, and serves as its Executive Vice President. He is also the co-founder of the Emirati-Lebanese Friendship Association and a former member of the Board of Directors of the Young Arab Leaders. He holds a bachelor's of business administration in marketing (magna cum laude) from the American College in London and a masters of arts in international relations from Boston University.

What is the current state of the education system in Lebanon and what are the ministry's ongoing plans to improve it?

We have identified a couple of key objectives that we plan to develop in the following years. First, we will embark on the upgrading of the ministry's curriculum and on improving the facilities of public schools across the country. Most importantly, the ministry needs to work on a law that governs the relationship between the private schools and the ministry in order to set standards that support the evaluation of these schools. The education system includes many schools that are doing great, both in the private and public sectors; however, their success depends mainly on their administration, facilities, and the availability of funds, and here is where we find sharp variations between them. Our education system has many strengths, such as the trilingual education our students receive that helps them gain proficiency in Arabic, French, and English. But we also have many deficiencies, such as not catering more to students with disabilities. This is why the current curriculum needs to be updated, new technologies need to be included and made more interactive, and more extra curricular activities that engage our students in different skill-developing tasks need to be developed.

What have been the main actions of the ministry with regards to the need to school thousands of Syrian refugee children and how can other key players get involved?

The ministry has taken all the necessary measures on this matter and the program has been running for more than two years now. We started the Reaching All Children with Education (RACE) program, and now it has been upgraded to RACE II, which is a plan to accommodate every child in the territory and give them access to education. Unfortunately, this plan depends on the funding from donors and, so far, we have not been able to raise the necessary funds in any given year to increase the enrolment rates. We have now reached over 200,000 Syrian children in the schooling system in Lebanon, but there are still 250,000 children out of school. By the end of this year, if there is commitment and funding by donors and the international community, we will be able to allocate 100,000 more. We need to call on the international community not to abandon these children. The London conference of international donors has been idle in delivering the promised assistance, and this has caused a shortage in the availability of funds. We are exerting every effort to change this situation and to accommodate every child we can into the schooling system, but we need more contributions to achieve our targets.

How are the ministry's policies contributing to fostering entrepreneurial mindsets among Lebanese students?

So far, the ministry is not concentrating on such programs, which is one of its weaknesses. Hopefully, part of the plan for RACE II is to upgrade the curriculum and include such activities to embrace entrepreneurialism as an inherent part of the national educational system. Consequently, policies need to be put in place that will contribute to these activities, and we must start looking for students that are talented. We need to develop those talents with entrepreneurial youths that think outside of the box via teaching-oriented methods, but we need a radical transformation in our curricula before we can excel in this.

What instruments is the ministry using to reverse the brain drain Lebanon faces and turn it into brain gain?

This requires a different movement not under the ministry alone, since we need to ensure the creation of more and better jobs. Also, the political situation in Lebanon needs to improve to encourage scholars to come back and improve higher education, thus contributing to academia. More job opportunities will attract all the brains into Lebanon but this is precisely where the country has been systematically lacking, and this is not a task for the ministry to undertake by itself.