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Lebanese Education Minister Raises Alarm Over Crisis in Schools

BEIRUT—Four months after taking office, Lebanon’s minister of education, Abbas Halabi, has warned of an irreversible disaster unless immediate action is taken to save a crumbling education system.

Two years of a crippling social and economic crisis compounded by the Covid-19 pandemic, prolonged school closures and erratic online learning have endangered the future education of hundreds of thousands of students, Halabi said in an interview with Al-Fanar Media.

What’s worse, those students now may miss out on learning for a third consecutive year.

“Another failed year will be detrimental,” Halabi said. “That is why I insisted on the resumption of regular in-person teaching.”

Serious Setbacks in Learning

The lack of infrastructure to sustain online classes, frequent power outages and communication disruptions have resulted in disorderly and chaotic teaching, he added. “This year is crucial to catch up on education losses; if we fail to have a meaningful year, the consequences will be devastating.”

Lebananese students have severely missed out on education over the past years, Halabi said. He cited studies showing that Lebanese students lag two years behind comparable countries of the region and four to five years worldwide.

According to unofficial reports the school-age population received little or no education during prolonged school closures because of anti-government protests, Covid-19, and the catastrophic 2020 Beirut Port explosion. Distance learning was impossible for many children who lacked devices, Internet connections, or reliable electricity.

“We opened an investigation into the fake diplomas. The Council of Higher Education at the ministry is currently discussing punitive measures which could lead to the closure of the universities involved and the payment of fines and penalties.”

Abbas Halabi

While private schools and universities with the necessary resources have resumed in-person teaching, the academic year in the public sector is threatened by teachers’ strikes. Teachers have refused to return to work without pay increases and other incentives, after their salaries lost 90 percent of their value due to skyrocketing inflation and the steep devaluation of the Lebanese currency.

“International donors stepped in and donated $70 million to the education sector, which was used to support teachers and help public schools cover their operating costs,” Halabi said.

“Teachers were granted monthly financial incentives to return to work,” he added. “They still have unmet demands for higher transportation allowances and social benefits, which the government will probably approve soon. All these efforts are aimed at paving the way for the return to regular in-person teaching and salvaging the school year.”

Worsening Inequalities

The multiple crises have further exacerbated existing inequalities between those who could afford private education and the growing number of Lebanese families who no can.

Before the economy collapsed, over 60 percent of students in Lebanon attended private schools. However, the United Nations estimates that 100,000 to 120,000 children transferred to public schools between 2019 and 2021, further straining a sector that was already under-resourced.

Underlining the urgency, Halabi said he would be calling for a conference on “Salvaging education and learning in Lebanon” in early February.

“The conference will examine short-term challenges, including financial support for teachers and students and securing the necessary resources for schools to operate properly, in addition to the long-term challenge of rectifying the whole education system, especially in the public sector.”

Education “is the only hope to revive the country,” Halabi said. “There is an alarming decline in quality education and teachers’ qualifications, but we have not reached the bottom yet and I still have hopes of overcoming the crisis.”

“There is an alarming decline in quality education and teachers’ qualifications, but we have not reached the bottom yet and I still have hopes of overcoming the crisis.”

He added that the conference would “look into all sectors—private and public education, higher education and vocational education—with the technical and financial support of international donors and U.N. agencies.”

Halabi continued: “We cannot isolate education from the overall situation in the country. Education was badly affected, but we are striving to salvage what can still be saved in order to maintain the distinctive feature that Lebanon has enjoyed for decades as the education hub of the region.”

“Decline in quality education, outdated curricula, exodus of qualified teachers and financial strains are some of the formidable challenges that the Ministry of Education cannot handle by itself and which require a new robust and comprehensive national education strategy.”

Investigation of Fake Degrees

Al-Fanar Media also asked Halabi about allegations that some Lebanese universities had sold fake master’s and doctoral degrees to Iraqis.  He said the ministry would not compromise the reputation of Lebanon’s higher education system, which has long been praised for its high quality. He promised that those involved would be prosecuted if the forgery of diplomas was proven.

“We opened an investigation into the fake diplomas. The Council of Higher Education at the ministry is currently discussing punitive measures which could lead to the closure of the universities involved and the payment of fines and penalties,” Halabi said.

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“We are also devising new regulations to deter such transgressions. Unfortunately, some universities have been teaching specialties without license and technical approval from the ministry. Their diplomas are not accredited or accepted in the job market. This is one of the problems that we are facing in higher education.”

At least three private institutions have been implicated in the scandal, an Iraqi education official told Agence France-Presse.

Lebanon has 48 private universities and educational institutes, according to figures from the Ministry of Education and Higher Education. It has only one public higher-education institution, the Lebanese University.

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