“Students are not customers” and “Education is not a commodity” are some of the latest slogans raised by student activist groups in Lebanon. Students have always been at the heart of activist movements in Lebanon, and have been especially active since the October 17 uprising came to life. Before October 17, in August 2019, private university students called for demonstrations after universities suddenly dollarized their tuition. Earlier, in May of that year, Lebanese University (LU) students took to the streets and organized one of the biggest protests the university had witnessed in the last 40 to 50 years; this came after LU professors called for a strike because of potential cuts to their wages.
The Lebanese University came about as a public institution, affordable and accessible to people of all backgrounds. However, contrary to the standard it is meant to uphold, the university remains severely neglected and underfunded, rendering it unable to provide quality education for its students. The October 17 uprising, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ongoing economic crisis have unmasked just how many discrepancies exist between public and private education in Lebanon. This is not to say that the private education sector is thriving necessarily, but it does receive more attention and funding from the network of Lebanese politicians and businessmen who consider these private universities investments.
While students at private universities were able to finish their academic year through online learning and online examination, students at the Lebanese University have not yet completed their fall semester exams. Once lockdown measures were announced, most private universities immediately switched to online learning; LU, however, struggled to make the switch for several reasons. To begin with, at LU, classes are usually composed of a minimum of 100 students, many of which do not have access to the internet or to a laptop. Private university classes usually do not exceed a capacity of 30-35 students on average, making it much easier to have interactive online classes. LU is not equipped to take on the effects of a pandemic, as the university has long been neglected, and its curricula and facilities have not been developed or updated with such crises in mind.
Tia Youssef, a Psychology student from LU’s Faculty of Letters and Human Sciences, recounts how the university abruptly closed its doors during the pandemic, in the middle of their fall semester final exams, and left students with no information as to when they would be able to retake their exams. After a failed attempt at online lectures for the spring semester, students were informed that they would be sitting for their fall semester exams – the semester which had ended months prior – in person. Meanwhile, private universities implemented online examination procedures and students were able to complete their academic year without setting foot in their institutions. “During the fall semester, due to the protests, we missed a few weeks of classes but professors were quick to move online partially. Lectures were recorded and posted online and some professors opted for online exams, which made professors and students slightly familiar with the concept of online learning,” said Mohamad Wehbe, who recently graduated from the American University of Beirut.
Beyond the shortcomings of online learning, LU decided to go ahead with in-person examination despite COVID-19 risks. “The administration has handled the situation in a very irresponsible and inconsiderate manner. We were told precautions will be taken, but there is no guarantee of what is going to happen and by doing in-person exams we will be putting our lives and the lives of our families in danger,” Youssef told Watchdogs Gazette.
As students have feared, one of their peers – a student from the LU Unesco branch – tested positive for COVID-19 after being in contact with a number of students, faculty, and staff. Despite the potential for a COVID-19 outbreak, the university chose to proceed with in-person exams. In a recent press conference, the minister of education assured that every person who came in contact with the student would be tested; only 12 students who were in the same exam room have since been tested. Moreover, in the last month, there have been reports of paper shortages, forcing professors to pay for printing themselves if their exams exceed one page. LU has also been holding exams and classes in the dark due to the increased electricity cuts across Lebanon in the past few weeks.
Aside from this academic year’s problems, the way the LU administration will deal with the upcoming year remains a question. As the crisis continues to escalate, many concerns are being raised about higher education in Lebanon. In an interview with Daraj, Ali Ismail, a prominent student activist, spoke about such concerns: “There are three main concerns for the upcoming year: First, the already existing number of students in the university which is already too large for the university to handle. Second, high school students who have just graduated with a certificate without actually sitting for their official exams, who will most probably head to LU and enter faculties that do not require entrance exams (as was the case the last time high school students were given certificates). And third, all the private university students who will transfer to LU due to the ongoing economic and financial crisis.” Despite all of this, the administration has still not proposed a plan to deal with this major influx of students.
After the administration failed to take any measures to help its students, multiple statements have been released by students from different faculties who have decided to take a stand and boycott exams until the university starts looking for solutions. The students of the Lebanese University have been demanding their rights and putting forth solutions for years, with no response from the administration. This time, however, they have chosen to stand firm and put pressure on the administration to be accountable and find a solution themselves. So far, the university has postponed exams for a week, but an alternative to in-person exams, which have been termed ‘the death exams’ by the students, has yet to be proposed.
The crisis is not limited to the Lebanese University, but rather encompasses the higher education sector as a whole, including private universities. The education crisis in Lebanon is a product of the country’s overall crisis – a result of the policies adopted and implemented by the ruling oligarchy. The ruling political class continues to support the growth of private universities for business and political gain; they rely on strengthening private educational institutions, while neglecting public institutions, and when the public sector inevitably suffers, privatization is presented as the only viable solution.
Privatization should not be the solution. The ministry of education along with the LU administration must propose a strategic plan to develop the public education sector, and consider the interest and needs of students, faculty, and university staff when making decisions that involve and impact them. To achieve that, students from both public and private universities must stand together and form a united student movement that fights for student rights and demands a better future, where universities are not treated as businesses, but as institutions that value their students over profit.