Hana Addam El-Ghali | Wednesday, March 18, 2020
The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with the economic distress, will have a long-term fallout on higher education institutions in Lebanon. The cumulative effect of the many challenges that the higher education sector in Lebanon currently faces, raises some critical questions. What does the future hold for higher education in Lebanon? Will we see more universities close? Merge? Or expand? How will universities reach their students, when access to campuses is halted forcibly? These are all questions that institutions of higher education in Lebanon have started addressing, in light of the COVID-19 crisis and economic distress impacting everyone in the country (in one way or another).
The higher education sector in many countries suffered from economic crises. Universities in Venezuela, East Asia, and the United States all endured the impact of economic downturn which pressed higher education institutions into taking different forms of actions based on their circumstances. The recent Corona pandemic has also hit hard all institutions of higher education globally, leaving over 700 million learners at home. Lebanon has been enduring financial strains since 2015, with a drastic deterioration as of October 2019. More recently, Lebanon has quickly become one of the countries hit hard by the Corona virus. These crises have severely affected particularly middle-income groups who are traditional clientele for higher education. In general, the crisis has a negative impact on the household expenditure, particularly on health and education, and primarily due to reduced incomes. The recent health crisis has rendered vulnerable families even more at risk due to its impact on the economy. It is expected that households will reconsider investing in education based on the fact that they are more concerned with finding means for their basic needs. However, household response to the crisis may be delayed, particularly that families in Lebanon are committed to education as is seen through the high private expenditure on education in the country estimated at 1.45% of GDP (World Bank PER, 2017).
Earlier in 2019, a number of universities imposed the payment of tuition fees in dollars, imposing restrictions on students who do not pay fees on time. However, this could not be sustained as students were not able to comply, and universities were keen on maintaining enrolment. More recently, and in response to the financial crisis, universities in Lebanon began implementing austerity measures such as budget cuts, reduction in staff, freeze on wages, curb on facilities and equipment. In such situations, faculty members also feel threatened, as some may lose their positions, their salaries or their benefits. It is therefore critical to rethink how these health and financial crises and institutional response will reflect on the quality of higher education, particularly in light of changing enrolment rates.
Enrolment trends at universities in Lebanon for the academic year 2020-2021 is yet to be determined as the economic crisis evolves. It is estimated that 60% of higher education students in Lebanon are enrolled at fee-paying private universities. Even students enrolled at the Lebanese University incur costs related to their higher education, such as transportation, lodging, etc. The commitment of families in Lebanon to their children’s education remains unquestionable so far. However, it is expected that with the devaluation of the national currency and the reduced capacity of households to afford education, this commitment may not persist. A decline in enrolment is one of the first expected impacts of the crisis on higher education in Lebanon. Enrolment decline will not only be caused by a fewer number of new entrants to the university, but also due to an expected increase in the number of dropouts. It is foreseeable that students on loans will not be able to continue their higher education, as banks stopped most loans, and students do not have the means to continue to repay them. It will be very important to observe if the number of applicants at local universities will increase, while enrolment rates decrease at local universities, as this will be indicative of the increased number of aspirants with low financial means to seek higher education. The Central Administration of Statistics (CAS) data shows that drop-out rates in education are highest among children and youth who come from the poorest families in Lebanon.
So, what will happen in AY 2020-2021?
Well, it may be surprising but enrolment may not decline as expected! Enrolment may actually increase for several reasons. For one thing, many students studying abroad may return to Lebanon as some households will not be able to afford tuition fees and cost of study abroad. In addition, international wire transfers have been decreased or in some cases even stopped, consequently parents will no longer be capable of transferring tuition fees and cost of living to their children studying outside of Lebanon. Therefore, these students will enroll at local universities. Moreover, the increase in the value of dollars to LBP makes studying in Lebanon more affordable for foreigners. This, coupled with some level of political stability, should attract foreign students to pursue higher education in Lebanon. Finally, an increase in enrolment at local universities may be expected as unemployment rises. The opportunity cost of higher education declines during the crisis as a result of the unemployment and a prolonged waiting period for youth in the labor market. Many secondary school students may choose to pursue higher education instead of remaining unemployed. However, absorbing the returning students, along with budget cuts and staff reduction within the universities, may result in quality decline.
It is also important to observe patterns of enrolment that may emerge. Since the financial crisis hits the middle class the hardest, a shift from high fee-paying colleges and universities to low fee-paying ones and the public university may be the new trend. Many of the low fee-paying universities already have student support modalities in place, even prior to the crisis, which will attract students. However, it is these same low fee-paying institutions that struggle with the quality of education they offer.
What can universities do to prepare for AY 2020-2021?
1- Look for online alternatives
Universities should be prepared to offer alternative modes of learning. Online learning presents the opportunity to decrease costs and reach a wider population of students, particularly in difficult times such as the current health emergency. During Venezuela’s socioeconomic and political crisis in 2016, university students were unable to attend classes due to financial and safety reasons. Many universities began providing online lectures and study materials were given over the internet. Today, and in light of the COVID-19 outbreak across the country, and due to forced institutional closures, most higher education institutions transformed face-to-face classes to online classes. Online education may also become a new revenue source through the opportunity of recruiting students from outside Lebanon. However, it is important to highlight the need to prepare faculty and staff to support this alternative teaching and learning modality in order to ensure quality, credibility and learning.
2- Freezing the Tuition Increase
The recent crises are leading to an increase in unemployment and a sharp decline in household incomes, particularly among the middle-income families who are the primary clientele for higher education. Therefore, families will reconsider how to spend their money and whether to pay the tuition fees at private universities or not. Universities should seek to maintain enrolment rates and to avoid drop-outs which may be caused by increasing tuition fees. Many universities are forced to increase their tuition fees to maintain economic balance, especially that the official exchange rate for the dollar remains different than what is traded in the market. Institutions as well as the government must cooperate to freeze this tuition increase. During the economic crisis in South Korea in 2011, the government issued a policy to limit tuition increases at all local universities. Tuition freeze, coupled with financial stringency may stop any potential enrolment decline.
3- Introducing Management Reforms
Higher education institutions can take advantage of these crises to conduct a self-assessment of their operations and governance. Institutions may be able to introduce reform policies that would enable them to improve institutional governance and the quality of education. Universities should acknowledge the need for reform at the level of their management systems and administrative structures seeking efficiency. The Lebanese University is one of the public institutions that would benefit the most from such an exercise, particularly considering that 20% of the government education budget is dedicated to the university, which enrolls only 40% of the higher education student population.
4- Equity in Resources and Funds Distribution
The impact of the crisis on higher education will depend on household response to the demand for education. Universities should consider the fact that people come from different socio-economic backgrounds and have been differently impacted by the crises. Given the reduced role of the state, the safety nets that may be implemented may not impact students seeking higher education. Scholarships, student loan schemes, and any form of social support should be distributed equitably. Both needs-based and merit-based scholarship schemes are important to support the continued demand for higher education.
Education in Lebanon evolved from being a pathway for economic mobility, to being only a privilege for some. In conclusion, no matter what scenario may emerge, it is important to maintain education as a public good. It is also important that Lebanon realizes that it needs to keep up with global trends in reaching all learners. The private sector response is not enough to curb the impact of the financial crisis on the higher education sector in the country. Public policy response is critical to maintain priority to education, and to rally for increased funding for the sector. The future, by definition, is unpredictable. However, by being attuned to learning, financial trends, and emergency situations we can learn to adapt to whatever future may be coming our way. The ongoing crises present the opportunity for Lebanon to define a new vision for higher education, one based on quality, equity, and sustainable development. What scenario will we have for AY 20-21? It is in the hands of Lebanon to decide.
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Hana Addam El-Ghali, Director, Education and Youth Policy Research Program, Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs, American University of Beirut.
In line with its commitment to furthering knowledge production, the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs publishes a series of weekly opinion editorials relevant to public policies. These articles seek to examine current affairs and build upon this analysis by way of introducing a set of pragmatic recommendations to the year 2020. They also seek to encourage policy and decision makers as well as those concerned, to find solutions to prevalent issues and advance research in a myriad of fields.
Opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.