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Crumbling Classrooms, Out-of-Date Libraries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.