BEIRUT, Lebanon, Sept. 28 (UPI) -- Lebanon is losing its longstanding status as the education hub of the region as a result of its severe financial crisis, the decade-long presence of Syrian refugees, COVID-19 lockdowns and now an acute fuel shortage.
The education system, like most of society's sectors, was hit hard by the compounded crises, described by the World Bank as the most severe globally since the mid-19th century.
With the currency losing nearly 95 percent of its value against major foreign currencies since 2019 and inflation soaring to 281%, Lebanon's population is struggling to survive with limited resources.
Poverty has drastically increased over the past year and now affects about 74% of the population, the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia reported earlier this month.
Lebanese parents' top priority has long been to provide the best education for their children, at home and abroad. Today, they can barely pay their tuition, not to mention feed them, due to the high cost of living. Many have lost their jobs, while those still employed are paid in Lebanese pounds.
Lama Tawil, head of the Union of Parents' Committees in Private Schools, said parents have seen their salaries heavily devalued with the skyrocketing exchange rates for the U.S. dollar, while bank restrictions prevent them from using enough of their savings.
The U.S. dollar reached a record 23,000 Lebanese pounds during the summer, before dropping to an average of 16,000 LL after the formation of a new Cabinet earlier this month. Before the country's crisis began in October 2019, the U.S. dollar was worth 1,500 LL.
"This made us suffer to secure school fees for this year, in addition to the soaring transportation and stationery costs and the problem of securing gasoline and diesel fuel, which are no more subsidized," Tawil told UPI.
With their shrinking salaries and school fees increasing an average of 40% to 50%, the parents are facing a difficult situation, she said, noting that tuition fees now range between 10 million LL and 30 million LL depending on the level of the school.
Transportation costs 600,000 to 1.5 million LL per month, which is "the equivalent of the teacher's half or full monthly salary," Tawil said.
Exchanging imported books and allowing students to drop school uniforms have been the only attempts to ease the costs this year.
According to the Center for Educational Research and Development, a total of 1,053,956 students were enrolled during 2020-21, with nearly 60% in private institutions. They included 37,536 students in schools run by the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East.
With the start of the new school year delayed to Oct. 10 so public schools can continue talks with striking teachers, it is not yet clear how many students moved to the public sector, migrated from the most expensive private schools to the least expensive, dropped out or joined schools abroad, especially in Cyprus.
The Education Ministry has estimated that more than 90,000 Lebanese students have transferred to public schools from private ones since 2019.
Teachers at some private schools were also on strike and refused to start the school year before an agreement is made about incentives and unpaid additional amount on the salary that has been accumulating since 2017.
"Even if we take all our salary, that won't be enough," said Rodolphe Abboud, head of the Teachers' Syndicate in Private Schools, noting that a teacher's monthly salary ranges between 1.5 million LL and 2.5 million LL ($60-$150 at the market rate), "which is nothing."
The crippling fuel and electricity shortages added to the many ordeals facing teachers and schools.
"This year's start is getting so difficult with the gasoline crisis...Even if fuel is available, it is so expensive," Abboud told UPI. "So how can we get to school every day?"
Schools, which have been trying to help keep their teachers by securing gasoline and free transportation, are also suffering from the country's brain drain. Of a total of 52,000 full-time teachers, some 2,000 have left.
"Some, mostly women, quit teaching and [are] staying home; others emigrated with their families, while the remaining are accepting job offers in the Gulf, Egypt or France that we usually used to turn down," Abboud said. "Those countries are taking advantage of the situation in Lebanon and offering much less salaries."
What concerns Abboud most is that next year Lebanon will face a shortage in the number of teachers if "more of them quit, emigrate or are dismissed."
With a $60 monthly salary, it will be hard to retain them.
A Lebanese teacher now earns as much as a teacher in the poorest countries, like Yemen, Somalia and Ethiopia, said Maysoun Chehab, UNESCO Beirut regional education program coordinator.
"Compared to Lebanon's neighboring countries, teachers there earn much more. In Palestine, the average [monthly] salary is $1,500 ... as it was in Lebanon" before the crisis, Chehab told UPI.
She said the financial crisis was more difficult than the impact of the COVID-19 lockdowns that left students out of school for 18 months and the Syrian refugee crisis, which affected the education system with a few hundred thousand children enrolled in public schools after regular hours.
International organizations, including UNESCO, the World Bank and UNHCR, are ready to provide assistance and are negotiating with the Lebanese Education Ministry to "estimate how much it will cost for restarting the education system."
Chehab said Lebanon reached acceptable levels in terms of quality and access but "it regressed, and now we're back to the square where we want to secure access to education."
Lebanon schools, she said, used to rank first and score very advanced compared to all the countries in the region while now the Gulf countries are much more advanced.
"If the crisis persists and continues to affect the education system, it will affect the human capital and the quality of the education system," she said.
Lebanon, she added, will lose its ranking, and higher education institutions might lose international accreditation. "This would be the most difficult."
"We were the [education] hub of the region," even during the 1975-90 civil war, she said. "Not anymore, and that is making Lebanon lose its role in the Arab world as a source of inspiration for the intellectuals and science people."
Even with assistance, Lebanon would need 10 to 12 years to recover and catch up, Chehab said. "It means that a whole generation will be affected."
This is what the student parents mostly fear.
"Such a regression will lead to a catastrophe like in Iraq and other similar countries that collapsed," Tawil said.