BEIRUT: Lebanon’s public education system is facing collapse a week before the start of the academic year, with teachers unable to pay for transport, and students dropping out because their parents cannot afford essential school items.
After three years of an economic crisis that shows no sign of ending, schools are also struggling to provide basic needs, such as heating and electricity.
An adviser to Abbas Halabi, the minister of education and higher education in the caretaker government, told Arab News that meetings are being held with donor countries, international organizations, the World Bank and ambassadors in an effort to cover the costs of teachers’ transport to school.
Assistance to help students attend school has not yet been discussed, the official said.
Lebanon’s spiralling economy has forced thousands of parents to transfer their children from private schools and universities to public institutions.
Edouard Beigbeder, the UNICEF representative in Lebanon, warned of an increase in the number of students dropping out of school.
Estimates suggest that up to 16 percent of Lebanese children and 49 percent of Syrian refugee students have not been enrolled in primary school, despite education ministry efforts to encourage a return to study.
Parents blame the country’s financial woes for the problem, saying they cannot afford their children’s transport fees, books or stationery.
Halabi warned from New York during an education summit held on the sidelines of the UN’s General Assembly 10 days ago that “if Lebanese students do not receive education, no others will.”
He had previously pleaded with donors to “secure aid that will enable the ministry to launch the school year, which seems impossible in light of the educational bodies refusing to show up at public schools and the Lebanese University.”
Lebanon is seeking aid of around $100 million for pre-university education, $37 million for the Lebanese University and $20 million for vocational education.
In addition to implementing a host of economic and political reforms, the international community has asked Lebanon to integrate Syrian and Lebanese students in morning and afternoon periods in order to reduce expenses.
Private schools and universities demanded payment of tuition fees partly in Lebanese pounds and partly in dollars.
However, the education ministry opposed the move, claiming it breached laws that stipulates the use of Lebanese currency.
Education institutions ignored the objection, claiming the only alternative would be to close, and established a “parents’ contribution fund” separate from the budget.
Parents who were unable to pay the tuition fees were left with the option of transferring their children from private schools or universities to public institutions.
Huda Suleiman, president of the Human and Future Association for children with special needs, said that she will be unable to open the school in Taanayel in the Bekaa Valley this year because the Ministry of Social Affairs, which “provides us aid, did not pay what it owes us.”
A limit on monthly bank withdrawals means she can pay only two teaching salaries.
“We have physical, motor and occupational specialists whose salaries are high, in addition to fuel costs,” she said.
Suleiman said parents were unable to contribute or even drop their children at school, as some traveled long distances.
Transport costs are beyond the salaries of most parents, many of whom are farmers or members of the military and internal security forces, she added.
The education ministry has yet to solve a dispute with education bodies demanding a salary increase and further financial incentives.
According to a study by the Center for Educational Research and Development, the number of students in Lebanon exceeded 1 million two years ago.
They include 334,536 students or 31 percent in public schools, 565,593 students or 52 percent in private schools, and 140,312 students or 13 percent in private free schools.
There are 36,375 students, or more than 3 percent, at UNRWA schools for Palestinian refugees.
Lebanon is home to 40 universities and institutes, and more than 40 percent of tertiary students attend the Lebanese University, a public institution.