By Robin Gomes
Lebanon’s long-running economic crisis is taking a heavy toll on the country’s prestigious private education sector.
State neglecting private schools
Father Boutros Azar, who heads the General Secretariat of Catholic schools, raised the alarm in an open letter June 4 to Lebanese President Michel Aoun. The priest blamed the problem on “state negligence” of the nation’s crucial private education sector, which includes Catholic schools.
According to Fr. Azar, "What emerges today from the Federation of Private Schools of Lebanon and from the General Secretariat of Catholic Schools confirms that we are facing a general challenge for the private education sector, which provides schooling to over two-thirds of pupils in Lebanon (710 thousand students, compared to 260 thousand in public education).”
He said the closure is “a major national loss” which exacerbates the country’s ailing situation.
Speaking to Lebanon’s French-language daily newspaper, L’Orient-Le Jour (LOJ), Fr. Azar explained "state negligence" referring to law 46/2018, which revised the salary scale of the public sector employees, depriving private educational institutions, even the largest ones.
For the past 5 years, the government has not paid the partially subsidised schools. For medium and small-sized schools, he said, there is no choice left except to close or make drastic cuts in teachers’ salaries.
Nearly half of Lebanon’s people below poverty line
Even before Covid-19, Lebanon was going through the worst economic crisis in its history, which triggered large-scale anti-government protests last year.
Today, nearly half the country's six million people are living below the poverty line.
In April, protesters torched a string of banks. The country’s banking system is seen as complicit in what many regard as the plunder of the country by their own political elite.
Some are warning that the scale of the catastrophe may be more devastating than the 15-year civil war, which raged from 1975 to 1990.
Fr. Azar said he cannot understand state bias against private schools, saying they are doing a service to the public for which they should be subsidized.
Lebanon's currency has lost nearly 60% of its value against the dollar, and, in a country that relies on imports, that has led to rampant inflation. Hundreds, if not thousands of businesses, have gone bust, and more than a third of the population is unemployed.
Fr. Azar said that the closure of schools following demonstrations in October is now followed by the coronavirus closure.
Parents have asked for a reduction in school fees in proportion to the number of closed days, which is approximately 40% of the school year.
Catholic schools under pressure
In his letter, Fr. Azar pointed out that with this forced closure, hundreds of thousands of students of private schools will seek a place in public schools. Tens of thousands of teachers, employees and workers will lose their jobs, adding to growing unemployment and poverty in the country.
Some institutes - such as those headed by the Marists - continued to pay their wages in full to their employees, while others halved the salaries of their teaching and non-teaching staff.
Even the prestigious Jesuit-run Notre Dame de Jamhour College, regarded as a premium institution not just in Lebanon but also in the entire Middle East, has fallen a victim of this situation. It has taken the extreme measure of writing to its former pupils in the US, Europe and in the Middle East, appealing for support.
In May, Pope Francis sent a donation of USD 200,000 to support 400 scholarships for students in Lebanese Catholic schools.
According to Archbishop Joseph Spiteri, Apostolic Nuncio to Lebanon, through whom the scholarships were channelled, the country has always had a “fantastic educational system that inspired the whole Middle Eastern region”.
Unfortunately, he pointed out, because of political and social crises, the educational sector is suffering a lot, with young people paying a heavy price.