BEIRUT—Rim Hakim, a law student, arrived in France in September to do her master’s degree. Like thousands of other Lebanese students, she benefited from a French government program called “Ma’akum” (“With You”) that helps Lebanese students complete their higher education at a time when their home country is facing its worst economic crisis ever.
“Upon arrival I received 500 Euros to help me settle down. I was exempted from paying registration and tuition fees and my cost of accommodation was reduced,” Hakim said in a Zoom interview from Paris. “It is true these are small amounts of money, but it helps a lot, especially my parents. You feel that there is someone who cares for you, a government that is backing you.”
France devised Ma’akum and other special programs to support Lebanese students enrolled in French public universities while increasing budgets for scholarships and partnership assistance between Lebanese and French establishments of higher education.
Ma’akum is “an exceptional emergency aid program … set up for the academic year 2020-2021 and specifically designed to help newly-arrived Lebanese university students in France,” said Agnes De Geoffroy, academic and scientific cooperation attaché at the French Embassy in Lebanon. “It had a budget of 3 million euros and has benefitted some 2,500 students.”
Extra Help Amid Multiple Crises
Announced by French President Emmanuel Macron during his visit to Lebanon in the aftermath of Beirut port explosion on August 4, 2020, Ma’akum targeted students who were already registered in French universities and whose parents had problems financing them due to the economic crisis and difficulties with money transfers, which worsened because of the Covid-19 pandemic, De Geoffroy said. (See a related article, “Lebanon’s Double Crisis Crushes Both Students and Universities.”)
“The acute deterioration of socio-economic conditions” in Lebanon “is deeply affecting higher education.”Agnes De Geoffroy
Academic cooperation attaché at the French Embassy in Lebanon
The program, she said, is separate from the annual scholarships awarded by France to exceptional Lebanese students, a program whose budget was doubled for the academic year 2021-2022.
There is still no indication whether the Ma’akum plan will continue in the next academic year, De Geoffroy said.
“We are currently reviewing our support tools in order to re-adapt them to changing realities” in Lebanon, where the “acute deterioration of socio-economic conditions … is deeply affecting higher education,” she said. She noted that the number of Lebanese students seeking relocation in French universities has surged from 3,100 in 2019 to around 5,000 today.
Increasing scholarship grants and enhancing partnership programs, including co-funding and co-certification by French and Lebanese universities for undergraduate, master’s degree and Ph.D. students, are among the favored tools. At present, there are more than 500 partnership agreements and 40 co-certification accords between French and Lebanese higher-education establishments.
“These exchanges are beneficial in terms of the quality of education and partnership and extremely crucial in maintaining and reinforcing the francophone culture in Lebanon,” De Geoffroy said.
Support at American-Affiliated Universities
While France was one of the first countries to pledge support for Lebanon in the wake of the Beirut port explosion, American-affiliated universities have also seen an increase in financial support and grants to their students since the onset of the economic crisis, which resulted in blocking depositors’ bank accounts, steep devaluation of the Lebanese pound, and severe unemployment amid persisting political deadlock. (See a related article, “University Professors Feel the Pain of Lebanon’s Worsening Crisis.”)
“Approximately 70 percent of our students receive one or more forms of aid due to the crisis,” said Ghada Abi Fares, senior university director of financial aid at the Lebanese American University. “We have doubled assistance to needy students and increased the number of beneficiaries.”
For the past two academic years, the Lebanese American University increased financial aid budgets by $30 million to a total of $80 million to cater for an increasing number of students who were no longer able to continue their studies.
“Approximately 70 percent of our students receive one or more forms of aid due to the crisis. We have doubled assistance to needy students and increased the number of beneficiaries.”Ghada Abi Fares
Senior director of financial aid at the Lebanese American University
The extra funding came largely from the university, which cut short on operational expenses and stopped major extension to projects, Abi Fares said.
“We also have U.S. government-funded projects, USAID programs that support needy and deserving students, and funding from the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative,” she added. MEPI, as the initiative is known, started a new project this year specially designed to help students who were already studying for degrees but couldn’t pay the fees to continue, due to the country’s economic crisis and currency collapse, Abi Fares said.
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On its part, the American University of Beirut said in a statement that for the current academic year, over 4,000 students have received need-based financial aid; around 1,000 students have benefited from grants-based scholarships; over 500 undergraduate and graduate students have received full merit-based scholarships; and over 160 Ph.D. students have received fully funded fellowships with an additional monthly stipend.
“Thanks to all the ongoing fund-raising efforts, these numbers are poised to increase notably in the coming year,” the statement added.