For Maribelle, now in her third year of Law at the Lebanese University (UL), financial problems were not new as they started when she began her university education at Saint Joseph University (USJ). "Bills were piling up while my father's income kept going down. Our situation was getting worse. At the start of the 2019 academic year, we were at our lowest point," she said. Maribelle was thus forced to leave USJ. She enrolled in the French-language law branch of UL, the only public university in Lebanon. Her father, an owner of a travel agency and a pub, was badly affected by the economic crisis and coronavirus confinement. " To this day, I still owe money to USJ. I also have to finish repaying bank loans dating back to my first year," said Maribelle.
University officials across Lebanon are confirming the seriousness of the crisis. For example, about 45% of students at the Lebanese American University (LAU) had previously needed financial assistance. During the 2019-2020 academic year, this rate rose to 65%. "And we expect this percentage to reach over 75% for the 2020-2021 academic year, as the number of middle-class families experiencing financial difficulties is increasing," said LAU President Joseph Jabra.
According to Fadi Geara, vice-rector for academic affairs at USJ, "the payment of university fees has started to gradually decrease since the beginning of the financial crisis and the protests against the ruling system at the end of 2019. The pandemic has heightened this decline."
A third-year law student at USJ, Mazen *, like hundreds of other students, began to struggle to pay his university fees at the start of the academic year. "I could no longer withdraw money due to banking restrictions; to which must be added the issue of soaring inflation," he explained. In Lebanon, "parents put their hard-earned savings in the bank, mostly so that they can pay for their children’s university tuitions," said Talal Nizameddine, the dean of student affairs at AUB.
"With informal capital controls, banking restrictions and the chopping (haircut) threat to the deposits of the Lebanese people, it has become increasingly difficult for families to secure the future of their children," he said. In this unpredictable environment, as he describes it, Mazen "had to make important decisions" that he never thought he would be forced to at this point in his life. "I was faced with two options: either accept the reality or leave the country. I decided to stay.”
Crisis Impact on students' performance and quality of life
According to Verena el-Amil, president of USJ’s secular club and member of Mada (a movement that brings together members of secular clubs from various universities), "many students are now considering leaving private universities to enroll at the UL, which was not their first choice. "University education in Lebanon risks becoming "exclusively accessible to the upper classes of the population, instead of being a fundamental right," said Dima, also a member of Mada and of AUB’s secular club.
Therefore, a better budget must be allocated to the UL in order to maximize its effectiveness in the face of "an outrageously expensive educational system, in the context of the current economic crisis," according to Mada. Today, this student platform is specifically asking that tuition fees for each year of the student’s entire academic path, be set at the cost of the first year.
Mada also advocates reducing tuition fees corresponding to the period of the pandemic. "As we are currently studying online due to the confinement, we asked the university to cut fees by 50% since we are not using the services available on campus," said Salma, a 1st year nursing student at AUB, adding that her parents were forced into debts in order to pay for her education. "Later on, even this option will no longer be possible!"
"My feelings fluctuate between instability, confusion and fear, because at any moment, I could be forced to leave this university. Among friends, we are discussing this all the time. Our future is so uncertain ... ". Mada is also calling for an intervention from the Ministry of Education so that tuition fees are all covered in Lebanese pounds at the rate of 1,515LL for one dollar. “Imagine if at some point the official rate is fixed at 3,000LL for one dollar. Students are terrified that fees in Lebanese pounds double if the dollar is converted at this rate," said Verena.
Salma will make a decision about continuing her studies, pending AUB’s decision on this (currency conversion) matter. "The problem is that life is getting more expensive while my parents' incomes are dropping," she said. "The first option would be to emigrate to the United States and join my father who is preparing our (immigration) papers. This scares me. Leaving my country would make me suffer as well.” The second option would be to register at the Lebanese University; a difficult decision for Salma who has always dreamed of studying at AUB. "This uncertainty about my future sometimes prevents me from sleeping. It makes me cry sometimes too."
Unlike Salma, Nada * is happy to have left AUB. "I believe it was the right thing to do, especially after the new policies that were adopted. I realized that their system just doesn't work for me." She will study cinema at UL, then political science. "You have no idea how excited I am!" she said, well convinced by her decision.
If the payment issues are weighing most and foremost on the parents, the worsening economic situation is also affecting the students, their quality of life, and even their grades. "During my second year (at university), I had to work after my classes in order to support myself and help pay some bills. It affected my studies, it was not easy for me to manage both," said Maribelle. Likewise, Nada admits having "faced a lot of stress and anxiety" regarding the payment of her university fees. She remembers her "constant worrying" about the future. "The deterioration in my mental health has affected my performance at university," she said. It was to offload this burden, at least in part, that Nada decided to leave AUB to enroll at UL.
Start a new life, here or somewhere else
Maribelle is still sad that she had to leave USJ and join the UL; a change that affected her social life. "I lost contact with my fellow USJ friends. I can no longer meet my old friends because of lack of time or the changing ambiance. This has plunged me into moments of great depression," she said. But for her, remaining in Lebanon "is out of question." "It’s a shame that the country is losing our generation, who is being forced to emigrate when we are supposed to rebuild the country," said Maribelle.
Just like her, Mazen also wishes to emigrate and won't even complete his semester at USJ. "I chose to take the risk of saving my money in order to go to France, if I get accepted at the law school of my choice. Unfortunately, I believe that this is the best decision, given the current situation and the limited opportunities in the country."
* The name was changed at the person's request to preserve his/her anonymity.
Universities facing the crisis
The economic crisis, exacerbated by the current health crisis, has not spared universities across Lebanon. In order to help their students in financial difficulty, the universities have adopted a series of measures, including the freezing of any increase in tuition fees for the upcoming year, interest-free student loans and payment deferrals (LAU), the increase participation in scholarships and the possibility of paying tuition fees, set in dollars, in Lebanese pounds at the rate of 1,515 LL (USJ).
Other institutions, such as USEK and AUB, have organized fundraising and donation campaigns. USEK also implemented spacing of payment, waived late fees and froze payment deadlines.
All these measures are impacting the universities. "The payment at the rate of 1,515 LL generated a reduction of 25 to 30% in the purchasing power of USJ, which buys a large part of its advanced equipment from abroad. The budget for the current year will suffer from a significant deficit," said Fadi Geara, the USJ vice-rector for academic affairs. Moreover, the drop in incomes generated by tuition fees has caused an "increase in university debts," said Celine Baaklini, pro-rector of student affairs at USEK.
The AUB, on its part, is stepping up efforts to establish a fund financed by donors from all over the world to help ease the impact of the weakened Lebanese pound," said Talal Nezameddine, dean of student affairs.
The LAU, which allocates more than $50 million in financial aid, was forced to “considerably cut its operating budget, postpone projects and launch an emergency campaign to raise funds for financial assistance to students," explained LAU President Joseph Jabra.
(This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour on the 16th of May)
"About two weeks after the confinement started, I had to drop out of college because I could no longer afford to pay my tuition fees. The bank stopped the education loans, while the university was asking me to pay the amounts due for two semesters. The 10% discount given was not enough to help me through," said Nada *, who was studying computer science at the American University of Beirut...