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Lebanon’s Double Crisis Crushes Both Students and Universities

The Lebanese economic crisis, exacerbated by the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic, has ended many students’ ability to continue their studies and has also endangered the survival of the country’s universities.

Today, Lebanese citizens cannot withdraw dollars or local currency from banks except in very small amounts, which makes people prioritize daily expenses such as food over anything else and has prevented many of them from paying university or school fees.

“We are studying online now; still we have to pay the fees for the second term. My family has already lost a lot of its savings due to the economic slump,” said Karim Assaf, an 18-year-old who is studying engineering at the University of Balamand. “I am afraid I will have to stop my studies as I won’t be able to pay the fees.”

The Lebanese pound has slumped since last October, when the country’s long-brewing economic troubles came to a head, prompting a financial and banking crisis considered the biggest risk to the country’s stability since the 1975-90 civil war. The currency crisis has resulted in a drop in the value of salaries and wages in both the public and private sectors, with the minimum monthly salary of 675,000 Lebanese pounds now equivalent to $168, a decline of 63 percent. The lockdown that has closed many businesses and increased unemployment has also exacerbated the country’s economic crisis, with consumer groups reporting a 58 percent price increase on basic commodities.

Many students in private universities, like Assaf, are asking for a reduction in tuition fees, since they believe they are not receiving the higher quality in-class education they paid for. In some cases, students are demanding a return of fees for laboratory use, private bus transportation, athletics, and other activities that are not taking place.

“Our budget has been deflated, and online education is costly for us as we had to buy licenses for several applications to be able to provide it.”

Hisham Kobrosli  
Vice president for development and information technology at Rafik Hariri University

Students in the Lebanese University, the nation’s only public university, face similar problems, even though their study fees are lower. They often have to work to survive or rely on other sources of income but they cannot access their money in banks and find it difficult to cover daily expenses.

Most institutions have refused requests to cut students’ fees, arguing that it is actually costing them more money to move their teaching online.

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“Our budget has been deflated, and online education is costly for us as we had to buy licenses for several applications to be able to provide it,” said Hisham Kobrosli, the vice president for development and information technology at Rafik Hariri  University. “We are also paying in dollars and the banking crisis is hitting us badly.” (See a related article, “A Financial Crisis, Then Coronavirus. Lebanese Universities Could Still Thrive.”)

Many universities expect to see budget cuts and reductions in funding for many activities.

“We’re considering everything, including staff and faculty layoffs, and salary cuts for those in leadership,” said Fadlo R. Khuri, president of the American University of Beirut, in a May 5 statement. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

“Most organizations do not survive such rapid and severe drops in revenue.”

Fadlo R. Khuri  
President of the American University of Beirut

He confirmed that tuition fees will stay unchanged, as “switching to distance education has added more work for our faculty, not less.”

The institution’s total revenue in the 2020-21 academic year is expected to drop by 60 percent from this year’s revenue of $609 million, according to the university’s president. “Most organizations do not survive such rapid and severe drops in revenue,” he warned, describing it “as the greatest challenge since the school was founded in 1866.”

Khuri said that management would now hold consultations with internal committees to draft a new budget to be presented on June 15 when more details would be given to staff and students. The new budget may well include “the closure of an as-yet-undetermined number of programs and departments,  furloughs, a halt to capital expenditures, a near-complete cancellation of university-sponsored travels, leaves and conferences for the foreseeable future, and a review of the current benefits system.”

Amid talk about harsh years ahead, many students are pessimistic about their future.

“In this unpredictable environment, we have to make important decisions about how to continue,” said Assaf, the University of Balamand student. “ I doubt I can.”

Burton Bollag and Rasha Faek contributed to this article.


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