US grants $20 million to support Lebanese university students

Lebanon's worst economic crisis has affected all sectors, from business to education

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The United States will donate $20 million to support the education of hundreds of university students in Lebanon, the US State Department announced on Saturday.

The donation will cover half the tuition costs for 1,800 students at the the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University, spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus said on Twitter.

Ms Ortagus said the funds were granted under the “Tomorrow’s Leaders" programme of the department's Middle East Partnership Initiative, which covers four years of education for underprivileged students at universities in Middle East countries, including the AUB and LAU.

Fadlo Khuri, the president of AUB, told The National the Lebanese universities would each receive $10m over two years – $7m for the 2020-2021 academic year and $3m for the 2021-2022 academic year.

"This will allow a total of 900 non-engineering undergraduate students at each university to take a course on gender, a programme that our brilliant dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Nadia El Cheikh, put together with the support of Rita Stephan, director of the MEPI programme in the US government, something the universities greatly appreciate. That course will then lead to coverage of 50 per cent of a student’s tuition for one year," he said.

The US funding comes amid Lebanon's worst economic crisis, compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, which has severely affected universities and left parents struggling to pay their children’s tuition fees.

Inflation has soared amid a shortage of dollars while economic activity and incomes have been hit by lockdown measures to prevent the spread of the virus. The local currency has slid about 70 per cent from its peg against the US dollar.

Mr Khuri said AUB, which functioned through Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war despite the kidnapping or murder of a number of staff, including two presidents, was facing the “greatest crisis” in its 154-year history.

The university expects revenue for 2020-2021 to be 60 per cent below its target of $249m, he said in a letter written on May 5.

In an op-ed published by The National last week, Mr Khuri said AUB had no choice but to lay off non-academic staff, who make up between 20 and 25 per cent of its 6,500 employees.

“Today’s economic breakdown has deeply wounded the university and will cause us to lose many of our community members,” he wrote.

Mr Khuri told the local newspaper L'Orient-Le Jour last week that the remaining staff would be asked to accept a salary cut of between 10 and 15 per cent. This would be voluntary for those earning up to $150,000 a year and compulsory for those making more.