Hard-Hit by Lebanon’s Crisis, Some Professors Feel Exploited
Editor’s note: This article is part of a package based on research by Al-Fanar Media into job benefits and protections for professors at universities in the Arab world. For an overview of the findings, see “Lacking Job Security and Benefits, Many Arab Professors Lose Interest in Academia.”
BEIRUT—With more than 40 universities, the higher-education sector in Lebanon, a country with a population of less than seven million, should be a substantial employer attracting highly educated people seeking a teaching career.
But university faculty members have seen their socio-economic status decline in recent years, especially since an unprecedented economic crisis has gripped Lebanon since 2019. Skyrocketing inflation, devaluation of the Lebanese pound and scarcity of foreign currency forced many establishments to cut salaries, scrap benefits, and lay off staff members. (See a related article, “Lebanon’s Double Crisis Crushes Both Students and Universities.”)
Attractive Benefits for Some
Hala Auji, an assistant professor of art history at the American University of Beirut, feels in a privileged position, unlike part-time and non-professorial rank colleagues whose contracts are not automatically renewed.
“I hold a tenure-track position, which allows for a longer contract of three to four years, renewable after the first four years,” Auji said.
The Lebanese pound has lost 80 percent of its value, hitting instructors who were traditionally paid in local currency. As a full-time faculty member, Auji receives an attractive benefits package including health insurance coverage for herself and her family, educational benefits for her children, and a temporary housing subsidy. She is also entitled to retirement plans.
“For most of my colleagues and I, who have dependent family members, one of the draws of a full-time position at AUB is the benefits package, which is rather generous, especially when compared to those of other local and international universities,” Auji stressed.
Zero Benefits for Others
For the 2020-21 academic year, the university granted full-time faculty members a portion of their salaries in U.S. dollars. However, it is not clear whether the arrangement will be upheld in the coming academic year.
The same does not apply to part-time instructors. Rayya Badran has been teaching contemporary art for the past seven years on a part-time basis with zero benefits.
“Working conditions for part-time instructors were already not ideal, but have obviously worsened a great deal with the devaluation of the currency. Our salary’s value declined dramatically to less than $200 a month and our contracts are renewed every term, which puts us in a very peculiar and vulnerable position because at any time AUB can decide not to renew these contracts,” Badran said. (See a related article, “University Professors Feel the Pain of Lebanon’s Worsening Crisis.”)
“Working conditions for part-time instructors were already not ideal, but have obviously worsened a great deal with the devaluation of the currency. Our salary’s value declined dramatically to less than $200 a month.”Rayya Badran
A lecturer who has worked for seven years on a part-time basis
Pain at the Public University
The financial and economic crisis is felt even more deeply by faculty and staff members of the Lebanese University, the country’s sole public university. Established in 1951, the Lebanese University has 16 faculties across the country. It has been shaken by strikes and protests of faculty members for years. The full-time employment of contractual professors and tenure for full-time professors have been recurring demands since the early 1990s. But grievances and complaints have remained unanswered and have worsened with the economic crisis. (See a related article, “New Professors Frozen Out at Lebanese University.”)
At the Lebanese University, contractual staff are paid per hour, full-time teachers are paid monthly based on yearly automatically renewable contracts, while tenure-track professors have open-ended contracts.
Appointments, moreover, are based on political and religious affiliation—a system that determines people’s job stability, academic achievements, research grants, and access to managerial and academic responsibilities. Besides having a damaging effect on the quality of education, the system reflects the state of dependency and control that the Lebanese political class has imposed on the university’s teaching staff since the end of the civil war period in 1990.
Ziad Abu Alwan, an associate professor at the Lebanese University’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Architecture, worked 18 years on an hourly contract basis before getting a full-time position.
“I was lucky to get a tenure-track contract … because the government opened the door for upgrading and I belonged to the relevant sect needed to ensure the sectarian balance,” Abu Alwan said. “Some teachers reach the retirement age of 64 and still worked on an hourly contract basis.”
“I was lucky to get a tenure-track contract … because the government opened the door for upgrading and I belonged to the relevant sect needed to ensure the sectarian balance. Some teachers reach the retirement age of 64 and still worked on an hourly contract basis.”Ziad Abu Alwan
An associate professor at the Lebanese University’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Architecture
‘We Feel We Are Being Exploited’
Full-time and tenure-track faculty members at the Lebanese University enjoy privileges through their mutual fund, including better health coverage than other state employees, as well as tax-exempt higher education funding for their children and retirement salaries.
But with proposed cuts to the university’s budget under the government’s belt-tightening policy, full-time faculty members fear they stand to lose many of those benefits.
A large majority of the university’s professors have been working for years on an hourly contractual basis. They observed a four-week strike in February in the latest of their recurring protest actions.
“We feel we are being exploited,” said Antoine Awwad, a lecturer in the Fine Arts and Architecture Faculty. “I have been lecturing for 11 years on an hourly basis with the hope of getting a full-time contract to no avail,” he said.
“Being a Christian Maronite working at the branch that is dominated by the Shia community, I don’t have any chance for promotion,” Awwad said. “Unfortunately, the LU is a smaller model of Lebanon. Sectarian and political affiliations regulate employment and promotion in line with sectarian quotas. Therefore, there’s no ambition or hope for advancement unless you are in the relevant branch to your sect.”
Looking for Jobs Abroad
Contractual staff do not get any of the benefits offered to full-time and tenure track teachers. They have to renew their contracts annually and provide at least 175 teaching hours per year. They may teach up to 350 hours, depending on the need, but additional hours are not remunerated.
With the Lebanese pound’s devaluation, contractual instructors’ average hourly income of 68,000 pounds has dropped in value from about $42 to less than $6.
“Being a Christian Maronite working at the branch that is dominated by the Shia community, I don’t have any chance for promotion. Unfortunately, the LU is a smaller model of Lebanon.”Antoine Awwad
A lecturer at the Lebanese University’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Architecture
“We are being pushed to the limit,” Awwad said. “Many, including myself, will be looking for jobs abroad once we have the opportunity.”
In the absence of a trade union, university teachers have set up associations to press for their rights. At the Lebanese University, a League of Full-Time Professors and a Committee for Contractual Teachers have been largely ineffective.
“They are controlled by political parties and their works hampered by political bickering and divisions,” says Abu Alwan.
A Union That’s More of a Forum
At the American University of Beirut, a faculty-led association, Faculty United, is more of a forum for faculty members to discuss issues related to shared governance, salaries, and faculty working conditions.
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“There is currently no union with enough clout to ensure the protection of faculty members’ rights at any Lebanese institution of higher education,” says Auji.
“However, there is a critical need, particularly given today’s dire circumstances in Lebanon, to form a union to ensure fair pay and equity, salary adjustments to counter hyperinflation, rights to benefits, and the general protection of faculty from unjust action,” she added.