BY THE BOOK

Lebanon 2016 | HEALTH & EDUCATION | REVIEW: EDUCATION

Developing the education sector at the national level will be a key priority of the government to support the country's growth.

The level and quality of education in Lebanon has grown by leaps and bounds over the last few decades since the end of the civil war. The UN Human Development Index in 2014 ranked Lebanon 65th in the world in terms of its adult literacy rate of 89.6%, coming in ahead of other countries in the region such as Libya (89.5%), Saudi Arabia (87.2%), and Oman (86.9%), but behind Qatar (96.3%), Bahrain (94.6%), Kuwait (93.9%), and the UAE (90%). Lebanon also came in 58th out of 78 countries in terms of its math and science test scores in a global ranking conducted by the OECD's economic think tank by compiling various international assessments. Similarly, according to the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Index, the country shows remarkable success in the health and primary education pillar, coming in 30th out of 140 countries. Lebanon has a primary education enrolment rate of 93.4%, and the quality of its primary education was ranked 5.4 out of a maximum of seven points. In terms of higher education, the country is likewise successful, coming in 58th out of 140 countries, with a score of 4.9 out of seven for the quality of its education system and a score of 5.6 for the quality of its math and science education. The enrolment rate, however, falls at the higher levels, coming in at 75% for secondary education and 47.9% for tertiary education. The index also highlighted certain shortcomings, such as internet access in schools (a score of 3.9) and extent of staff training (3.6).

Total expenditure on education has been consistently expanding, driven by increased awareness of the importance of education. Total expenditure on education in 2013, approximately USD3.05 billion according to Lebanon's National Accounts, was 2.57% of the GDP, up from 2.19% in 2012 and 1.65% the year before. Lebanon's public expenditure on education is relatively small in comparison to other countries in the region such as Kuwait (3.8% of GDP), Oman (5.4%), and Tunisia (6.2%). The majority of the expenditure on education in Lebanon is comprised of private spending, and this is reflected in the quality of private education in the country. The public sector, which is heavily subsidized, operates around 1,275 schools, 117 vocational schools, and the Lebanese University, the only public tertiary facility in the country, BLOM Bank reported in 2014. The private sector, the main driver of growth for the educational sector in the country, meanwhile, operates around 1,502 private schools, 300 vocational schools, and about 40 universities all across the country. The private sector subsequently has a higher success rate; a total of 88.3% of total enrolled students in private schools passed their class in 2013 compared to 77.2% of students in public schools. Accordingly, the total number of enrolled students in the private sector rose 1.2% YoY to 676,450 students in 2013. Private household spending on education is high and exceeds public spending by far, comprising about 10% of households' total expenditure. However, the rate of return on education is not adequately reflected by the expenditure on education. BLOM also noted the presence of persistent public deficiencies hindering the education sector, especially as the sector constitutes a large component of public salaries, with more than 41,000 teachers as of the end of 2013, advising urgent reforms to ensure quality control and better student performance and subsequently, a better economic performance. The education system in Lebanon is regulated by the Ministry of Education and Higher Education. HE Elias Bou Saab, Minister of Education and Higher Education, told TBY the ministry has several key items on its agenda. “The education system includes many schools that are doing great, both in the private and public sectors," he said, adding, “However, their success depends mainly on their administration, facilities, and the availability of funds, and here we find sharp variations between them." The Ministry is thus working on a law that governs the relationship between private schools and the ministry in order to set standards that support the evaluation of these schools. The minister also identified more items that need to be done to ensure the growth and development of the education sector: “We need to work on a new, improved curriculum and include technology in the education system. We need to make sure that we have proper training for teachers, and also a correct evaluation system to measure their improvement," he added, noting, “So far we have missed plenty of opportunities and a great deal of work needs to be done to have a proper and healthy education sector."

Another pressing issue facing the education sector is unequal distribution of schools across the country and disparities in the quality of education offered in different regions according to the socioeconomic development of the area. The highest concentration of academic and vocational schools is in the Greater Beirut area, with 26.4% of the total number of schools in the country, followed by North Lebanon (25.8%), Bekaa (16%), Mount Lebanon (12.8%), South Lebanon (10.9%), and Nabatiyeh (8.1%). Bekaa and South Lebanon are also characterized by higher levels of illiteracy compared to more central, developed regions in the country, which also see higher levels of educational attainment and lower levels of dropouts.

The spillover of the Syrian crisis into neighboring Lebanon has also placed a strain on the education system. There are an estimated 1.2 million refugees from Syria, more than one fifth of Lebanon's current population. Approximately 91% of students enrolled in schools are Lebanese; however, the number of students of other nationalities such as Palestinian and Syrian has been on the rise in recent years. The Lebanese government has worked hard in the last few years to ensure that Syrian and other underprivileged children are able to receive access to an education. Minister of Education and Higher Education Saab said the ministry had launched the Reaching All Children with Education (RACE) program, which was later upgraded to RACE II, two years ago to reach out to every child in the territory and give them access to education. “We have reached over 200,000 Syrian children in the schooling system in Lebanon, but there are still 250,000 out of school. Hopefully, by the end of this year, if the commitment and the funding are provided by donors and the international community, we will be able to allocate 100,000 more," he noted. In an interview with TBY, Irina Bokova, the Director General of UNESCO, said the body is working in tandem with the government of Lebanon and its partners to bridge the urgent learning gaps for youth affected by the Syria crisis. “In Lebanon, UNESCO has been implementing two major initiatives… to facilitate access to secondary education to vulnerable youth affected by the Syrian crisis… and to provide access to higher education for both vulnerable Syrians and Lebanese students."

“The message of UNESCO's Constitution drafted 71 years ago has never been so relevant," she noted, adding, “The defenses of peace must be built in the minds of women and men, starting with young minds, beginning on the benches of school."