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Professors’ Strike at Lebanon’s Only Public University Reveals Social and Economic Gaps

TRIPOLI, Lebanon—Students at Lebanese University will likely spend much of the summer holidays in make-up sessions due to a strike by faculty members that has forced many students to miss exams and lose out on internships and opportunities to enter master’s degree programs.

On Saturday, professors voted to continue a more than six-week hiatus that began on May 6 after a government proposal to cut budgets and staff salaries at the public university. The plans are part of a package of draft austerity measures designed to unlock $11 billion in donor aid, pledged to Lebanon at a 2018 Paris conference.

Earlier this year, the newly formed Lebanese government warned that “difficult and painful” reforms would be needed to lower the country’s crippling public debt, which is among the highest in the world. A draft budget introduced in April prompted strikes across the public sector as employees, including university professors, gathered in front of Parliament to protest proposed salary cuts.

Students say they are frustrated to see their studies stalled and their futures used as bargaining chips, but strikers insist the action is necessary to protect the only low-cost higher-education institution in Lebanon, where many students are unable to afford private universities. (The average annual cost for a Lebanese private university runs around $7,000 a year for an undergraduate, but can be as much as $25,000 annually at the country’s top private institutions.)

“In general, the government doesn’t respond unless we do strikes and the first victims of the strikes are students,” said Amar Assoum, who teaches in the Faculties of Engineering and Science at Lebanese University. “I’m sad for them but we don’t have any other choice.”

Students initially supported the strikes, which are not uncommon at the university, but their patience has worn thin. “Now we will have really intensive work because there’s still half of the course to finish. It’s a lot of pressure,” says Rania Yousef, who is in the middle of a bachelor’s degree in Arabic literature.

The striking professors have promised to help the students in make-up sessions once the strike ends.

Crumbling Classrooms, Out-of-Date Libraries

Some of the brightest students in the country seek out Lebanese University for its affordability and, in some departments at least, academic rigor.  The 2019 Lebanon University Ranking by UniRank, a higher-education directory, placed Lebanese University third out of 35 institutions in the country, after the American University of Beirut and Lebanese American University. (Université Saint-Joseph de Beyrouth also often places well in rankings.)

Dani Osman, who teaches genetics at Lebanese University, said the science faculty is a leader in the region, with students succeeding in spite of poor laboratories and other facilities, which place them at a disadvantage. “Conditions are really bad but we have a high academic level because [students] are so motivated.”

Funding cuts over the years have depleted the university budget to $250 million, which faculty members say is insufficient to maintain rundown buildings, restock outdated libraries, and equip laboratories.

Alaa Shahab, 28, a Syrian studying at Lebanese University, paused his coursework for a year and did shifts at a restaurant to afford the $1,000 enrollment fee (it’s around $500 for Lebanese nationals) to pursue a master’s degree in political science. The teaching quality is good, he says, and professors are supportive—often advising students on outside hours over WhatsApp groups. But the environment is not always conducive to learning.

Broken fans and no air-conditioning make it difficult to concentrate in stifling classrooms during the summer, he says, and in winter “it’s so cold that sometimes my hand is shaking during exams.” Core texts are missing from library shelves. “I’m in 2019 doing research in books published 20 years earlier. This is very silly,” he said.

Alaa Shahab, a master’s degree student in political science, praises the teaching quality and supportive nature of Lebanese University professors (Photo: Olivia Cuthbert).

Filling Gaps in Funding

Directors of branch campuses try to fill the funding gaps. Jacqueline Ayoub, director of the Faculty of Letters and Social Sciences in Tripoli, depends partly on donations, the most recent of which were supplied by a magazine—wooden benches for the courtyard where students gather during breaks.

Donations are always non-financial and can’t offset the cash-flow crisis that keeps the campus—a former French military headquarters—in a depleted condition. Paint peels from the walls of open-air corridors and classrooms are sparsely furnished. There’s a lack of basic teaching tools like projectors and the patchy Internet connection is limited to the library and staff offices.

Budget cuts have not been clarified, so Ayoub is unable to sign off on new spending. “We need LCD screens for presentations, microphones for the classrooms, maintenance for the building as well as air-conditioning and fans to fend off the summer heat—what we ask for is the minimum,” added Ayoub.

As a former Lebanese University student, she sees the strike from both the students’ and the professors’ perspectives.

Many strike participants complain that the government fails to take the Lebanese University seriously and channels funding elsewhere. “Our ambition is to motivate the government to support the Lebanese University. … The irony is, many of our leaders are LU graduates so they understand our situation,” Ayoub said.

Jacqueline Ayoub, director of the Faculty of Letters and Social Sciences at the Tripoli campus of Lebanese University, says she sees the strike from the perspective of both the professors and the students (Photo: Olivia Cuthbert).

The University as Public Space

Founded in 1951, the Lebanese University was set up following a series of student protests against the high cost of education that resulted in violent clashes with security forces the previous year. Today it is Lebanon’s largest university, with around 85,000 students at five branch campuses spread across the country.

The university’s students represent a cross-section of the diverse social and religious fabric in Lebanon, where the sectarian divisions of the 1975-90 civil war are still etched into society. Many of the private universities are shadowed by sectarian influences. Young people from all religious and political communities come to Lebanese University and engage in discussion says Azza Sleiman, a professor of law who has taught at the university for 10 years. In her opinion, the university is “the only public space in Lebanon.”

Nizar Hassan and Benjamin Redd of The Lebanese Politics Podcast discussed the “sectarian privatisation of higher education,” in a dedicated episode on higher education last week. “The Lebanese University is being marginalised while these private universities are booming,” they said. “There’s a lot more at stake than some students not being able to take exams.”

“It’s important we have access to free education in Lebanon,” says Doaa Chami, who studies geography at Lebanese University. “Young people have the right to study.” (Photo: Olivia Cuthbert)

Losing Out on a Scholarship

Last Saturday, professors voted to continue the strike. Like other part-time professors at the university, Suzanne Kahale, who teaches psychology and sociology of sports, receives her salary in a lump sum every two years and has to supplement her income by also teaching at private universities.

“Initially, people said you can’t do this to the students, but when they heard about what we go through, not receiving a salary every month, they had empathy for us,” she says. Part-time professors are supposed to be given full-time contracts complete with benefits and pensions after two years, but in reality these appointments are often the result of political connections. “No one has been given a full-time contract since 2014, unless they have wasta [connections or political clout],” Kahale says.

Hasan Salhab, who teaches history at Lebanese University, supported the strike in the beginning but believes “it’s no longer an acceptable act.”

For students, stuck at home and watching their summer plans slip away, the strike has gone on too long. “After years of this disruptive system, we are always the losers,” says Iman Osman, a chemistry undergraduate. This was supposed to be her final semester before doing a master’s degree in France, but with exams postponed, she will lose her place and a 50-percent scholarship.

“We’re ready to defend our university budget, but it’s not allowed to use us as students to get these demands.” Now she wants the professors to succeed, “if only to prevent a repeat of the same situation year after year.”


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