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Saint George University of Beirut: Born in Midst of Crisis, but Finding Its Path

BEIRUT—Saint George University of Beirut, Lebanon’s newest higher-education establishment, opened three years ago at the onset of the country’s worst economic crisis, which has caused the novice institution major financial and administrative challenges.

Saint George University of Beirut specialises in medical studies. The university is affiliated with the adjacent Saint George Hospital University Medical Center, a leading medical establishment created 140 years ago by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Beirut.

“Saint George Hospital is the raison d’etre of the university,” Tarek Mitri, the university’s president, told al-Fanar Media. “The fact that the hospital has been a centre of medical education was at play in the decision to start a new university.”

After decades of serving as a teaching hospital for medical residents and interns from other institutions’ faculties of medicine, Saint George Hospital has acquired its own university, which includes schools of medicine and nursing, and a faculty of arts and sciences.

“Doctors in university hospitals are supposed to work in research as well as in education,” Mitri said. “Every physician is an educator; therefore, a university hospital should be intimately associated with a university.”

A Small, Specialised Institution

The process of establishing Saint George University started shortly before the economic crisis hit, raising questions about how a new university could be viable in a small country that already had some 50 higher-education institutions.

“We are not seeking to compete with other institutions,” Mitri stressed. “We wanted to have a small, specialised university that meets specific needs. There are far fewer than 50 universities which are worthy of serious appreciation and able to serve the country in producing an educated elite.”

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“Saint George Hospital is the raison d’etre of the university. The fact that the hospital has been a centre of medical education was at play in the decision to start a new university.”

Tarek Mitri, President of Saint George University of Beirut

By creating its own university, Saint George Hospital has emulated world renowned medical institutions like the Mayo Clinic and the Cleveland Clinic in the United States, each of which founded its own medical university.

Saint George University of Beirut will be introducing a new teaching methodology in its medical school in cooperation with the Mayo Clinic, which will be offering advice on the curriculum and faculty organisation, Mitri said.

“The curriculum will be different as it combines a classical introduction to various disciplines and problem-oriented studies to resolve medical issues.”

He added: “We will be sending faculty members to Mayo to get more acquainted with the way medicine is being taught there, including team-based learning where students shadow physicians at the hospital from the first year of medical studies instead of waiting until the fourth year.”

Operating Amidst a Financial Crisis

Big challenges are facing Saint George University at the height of Lebanon’s economic crisis. In the past three years, the Lebanese pound has lost more than 95 percent of its value and the purchasing power of people has plummeted sharply as banks have placed painful restrictions on depositors’ withdrawals.

As with other deposits in Lebanese banks, the endowment for the establishment of Saint George University has not been fully accessible.

“In fact, we lost most of it. We have limited financial resources and we will definitely have a deficit for years to come,” Mitri said.

However, the university insists on maintaining moderate tuition fees to give the general public access to medical studies.

Students in a classroom of Saint George University of Beirut. (Photo courtesy of the university).

“If you’re an institution that wants to serve young people in Lebanon, the challenge is to offer them quality education at a reasonable cost,” Mitri said. “As a newly established institution, we cannot impose high tuition fees for medical studies like those of well-established prestigious universities.”

Attracting Students and Professors

Saint George University’s affordable tuition fees have attracted students who had already been admitted to established universities, such as the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University, which have much higher tuition fees.

Of the 250 applicants to the medical school, only 50 were accepted, 66 percent of them women. Applicants go through tough interviews and thorough assessments before they are admitted.

Another challenge for the new university is hiring qualified educators, as large numbers of doctors and other health workers have left Lebanon to seek better opportunities abroad, a problem common to other institutions.

“We are not seeking to compete with other institutions. We wanted to have a small, specialised university that meets specific needs.”

Tarek Mitri, President of Saint George University of Beirut

Saint George is compensating by hiring part-time instructors from the Lebanese University’s medical school who have seen their income drop dramatically because of the national currency crisis.

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Initial plans for the university included the construction of a large campus in Beirut, but the project was put on hold when the economic crisis hit and in the wake of the devastating explosion in the Port of Beirut in 2020. The blast caused major damage at Saint George Hospital.

“We are using what is available,” Mitri said. “We renovated the hospital after the explosion and put the offices and classrooms in a building that was built by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Beirut as an orphanage in 1932.”

Asked about the use of digital learning in the university’s teaching, Mitri said: “We should make the best use of technology and what innovation offers, but as a supplementary tool. The primary educational tool remains in-person interaction in the classroom.”

He added: “It is amazing what the digital world can offer, but good education should involve a direct relationship between educators and students.”

Saint George University of Beirut started a new academic year this month with 250 students in the medical and arts and sciences faculties.

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