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Lebanese University President Confronts a Difficult Reality

/ 10 Feb 2022

Lebanese University President Confronts a Difficult Reality

The Lebanese University faces a complex series of crises that have left it unable to cover its operational expenses. Besides the toll of the country’s economic collapse, campuses are also coping with teachers’ strikes and the stress caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Bassam Badran, who became the university’s president in October, has been trying to address this difficult reality over the past few months.

A former student of the same university, Badran is aware of the impact of such conditions on the institution, which is the country’s only public university.

Badran came to the presidency after a long academic career. In 2005, he was chosen as director of the university’s Environmental and Health Research Centre. In 2010, he became the dean of the Faculty of Science.

In a recent online interview with Al-Fanar Media, Badran talked about his plans for leading the university through its crises.

“The Lebanese University had an influential research presence in the Arab region. However, the current financial crisis greatly affected high-cost research. The long-term effects will be notable in the university’s research quality.”

Bassam Badran  

He pointed out that the Lebanese University provides free education for thousands of students from various financial backgrounds. “The lack of such a role will be a disaster that strikes the stability of society, and means the end of everything in Lebanon,” he said.

Established in 1951, the Lebanese University has about 86,000 students at 76 campuses across Lebanon. The university also has about 1,650 tenured and 3,320 contracted teaching staff, and 2,500 administrative employees.

New Sources of Revenue

The Lebanese government cut the university’s budget this academic year to an amount worth about $12 million at the Lebanese pound’s current street value. That’s opposed to the $265 million budget the university had requested.

Badran has adopted an urgent plan to transform the university into a revenue-generating organisation.

The plan encourages some university faculties to launch investment projects, individually or in partnership with enterprises in the public and private sectors, by employing the expertise of professors and students. This could ensure the continuity of providing education free of charge and help develop these colleges.

Badran thinks such projects will help solve part, but not all, of the university’s financial problems. “Governmental and international support remain the guarantee to save the Lebanese University out of this crisis,” he said.

The plan would build on previous efforts to provide additional revenue, such as the launch of a unit affiliated with the university’s College of Public Health to conduct Covid-19 tests for all arrivals to Lebanon’s Rafic Hariri International Airport. The College of Medicine has opened mental health and respiratory disease clinics to the public, while the College of Engineering has participated in several construction projects with the public and private sectors.

Regarding efforts to seek more international support, Badran says the university has contacted organizations like the World Bank and Unicef, asking for help to ensure the continuity of education. “They pledged to support the university during the coming period, by providing the necessary educational materials to conduct research, besides other forms of support to educators and students,” he said.

Mental-Health Support

“The Lebanese government, not the university or its president, is the one who decides whether to raise wages. We are public employees. … The situation is difficult, and it does not allow us to raise wages, neither now nor in the long term.”

Bassam Badran  

The economic and public-health crises gripping Lebanon are affecting not only the university, but also its professors, staff and students. Financial distress and the effects of Covid-19 shutdowns have left some students more prone to mental-health issues such as depression and uncertainty about future, as well as more serious psychological disorders. To address that, the university is expanding mental-health services.

“The teaching staff and students are greatly affected by the current conditions, making the launch of mental-health programs a priority,” Badran said. “The Department of Psychology at the University’s Faculty of Arts and Humanities launched an initiative called “Nehnal Haddak, B+” (“We Are Beside You, Be Positive”), to provide psychological support and mental-health services to those in need on campus and outside the university, free of charge,” he added.

The university also started a “Step Towards Success” project to provide academic services to psychology students and deepen their knowledge. This was supported by the launch of an online application to receive and follow up on cases of individuals needing psychological support, besides the launch of awareness campaigns and providing psychological counseling on social media.

Scientific Research Decline

Scientific research was also severely hit by cuts in government funding. The university is looking for research partnerships to help fill the deficit, Badran said. “The Lebanese University had an influential research presence in the Arab region. However, the current financial crisis greatly affected high-cost research. The long-term effects will be notable in the university’s research quality,” he said.

Wage Crisis

Given the sharp collapse in the value of wages due to the devaluation of the Lebanese pound against the dollar, Badran said that more than 100 professors had left the university over the past two years.

Last month, the university held negotiations with contracted teaching staff members, hoping to end their three-month sit-in over unpaid wages. The goal was to enable students to continue studying and sit for exams.

Teachers working on part-time contracts have not been paid for more than a year, and they enjoy no medical, social, or insurance benefits from the university. Badran acknowledged their suffering and said he did not have an immediate solution .

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He added, however: “I have part of the solution, as a mediator to convey their demand to appoint them as tenured teaching staff. I prepared and sent a file of about a thousand professors, to be tenured, to the Ministry of Education. It will, in turn, refer it to the Lebanese Council of Ministers.”

“The Lebanese government, not the university or its president, is the one who decides to raise wages. We are public employees,” said Badran. “We have already asked [for a raise] more than once, but the situation is difficult, and it does not allow us to raise wages, neither now nor in the long term.”

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Copyright © 2018 Al-Fanar Mediaحقوق © 2018 الفنار للإعلام