At least 20 per cent of private school pupils in Lebanon are likely to move to the struggling public education sector during this school year.
Private schools and universities are becoming increasingly unaffordable with fees paid for in dollars, but the expected move will take place as the public education sector itself is near collapse, raising questions over whether public schools will be able to handle the additional strain.
“We can’t quantify accurately until December 31, when we can count the number of dropouts and pupils who migrate from private to public schools,” the education ministry's director general, Imad Al Achkar, told The National. “But this is our estimate.”
The move from private to public education can be traced back to the beginning of Lebanon's economic crisis, which began in 2019.
In 2020-2021, about 55,000 Lebanese pupils transferred from private to public schools, according to a World Bank report — even before a policy of fees needing to be paid in dollars was adopted by most private schools.
The majority of Lebanon’s private schools — comprising 70 per cent of the nation's education sector — have increased their tuition fees and switched to demanding dollar payments in recent months, in a bid to protect the private education sector from the local currency’s more than 95 per cent plunge in value.
Lebanon’s caretaker education minister Dr Abbas Al Halabi has since last year called the dollar payments illegal and stressed the need for private tuition fees to be charged in the local currency.
“It is rejected by the ministry and declared illegal,” Mr Achkar agreed.
Private school administrators maintain that tuition must be paid for in dollars to cover expenses, maintain the quality of education, and pay teachers.
Most of the country's economy is dependent on the dollar, while the majority of residents are still paid in Lebanese pounds. That contradiction has created an impasse for the education sector.
Ministry of education officials acknowledge that the law will require amendment as the education sector slips into further chaos, according to the director general.
Officials and educators worry the public school system will be unable to absorb more pupils from private institutions.
Already, public schools are struggling under the weight of Lebanon’s economic crisis. Thousands of public school teachers have been sporadically on strike since January, demanding a rise in wages, transportation stipends and better teaching conditions.
The latest public schoolteachers' strike coincides with an overall public sector strike that began two months ago and paralysed many of the country’s operations.
Mouluk Mehrez, the head of secondary education association, said she would not even characterise the open strike as a strike because “we are genuinely incapable of working. We don’t even have the transportation money to get to school".
“Three years ago we made $2,000” a month, she said. “Now it’s $80. The collapse was fast and we lost the value of our money at a time when everything in Lebanon depends on the dollar.”
Although the public school year is set to begin in September, teachers say they will continue their strike until their demands are met.
Around two thirds of Lebanon’s population now lives in poverty due to an economic collapse that first began showing signs in 2019.
The majority of goods and services in the struggling nation are now priced either in dollars or their equivalent in local currency. State electricity is scarce, with the vast majority of the country’s residents depending on privately-owned shared generators, paid for with dollars.
Meanwhile, the majority of Lebanese salaries have not risen to keep pace with inflation. A breakdown in goods and services has come to characterise life in Lebanon, and the education sector is also on the brink of collapse.
Mrs Mehrez said that although the teachers' syndicate had recently met with the caretaker education minister and the prime minister, they were still not close to a solution that would end the strike.
“With respect to the public sector: If there’s no teachers there are no engineers, no doctors, nothing,” she said. “The collapse of the teaching sector means the collapse of the whole country.”
Mr Achkar agreed: “Our country was built on education. We can’t risk losing it.”
Employees at the education ministry are also on strike.
“We will not have an easy year. I can tell you that,” Mr Achkar said.