The new academic year has started and my son, who graduated from high school this summer, has decided to take a gap year. The idea is that he will find out what he really wants to do in life before his parents cough up as much as US$35,000 a year to send him to a British university.
Initially, my Lebanese wife was not entirely comfortable with this decision. “Why waste a year?” she argued but then came the bombshell: if he discovered that he can make his way in life without a degree, our son said he may not even go to university. Why do it for the sake of it?
His is an attitude shared by both many British school leavers who don’t want to be burdened by a loan and by their parents who may have to subsidise their kids during the three years of college.
And it’s nothing new. Some segments of British society have always adopted an attitude of cheerful indifference (and in some cases outright suspicion) to academic achievement. Just look at the royal family.
Indeed, many friends with whom I was at school decided not to go to University in the early ‘80s. They include an army colonel, a journalist, a jeweller, a property broker and a security consultant.
I would wager that the majority of Lebanese reading this will be shaking their heads; tut-tutting under their breath and agreeing with my wife, and before I go any further I must confess that ideally I would want both my children to push themselves as far they can academically. In this respect, there is much to admire in the Lebanese attitude to education.
Like the Chinese and the Indians, we want to get on in life and a solid education is considered a ticket to security. It is also a reflection of responsible parenting. The Lebanese are phenomenal savers and will have thought about the cost of education from the time junior was knee-high to a pencil. They will sell land or work in godforsaken parts of the planet, often away from their family for months on end, to ensure they can afford it. My wife is cut from this determined cloth and she has trouble grappling with the idea of any of her children not having a degree
And Lebanon being Lebanon, education is big business. There is no state education system to talk of and so 90 per cent of the population is privately educated to a greater or lesser degree. And it would not be uncharitable of me to say that most schools have allowed the commercial to overshadow the pastoral. Passing exams is the ultimate goal. Parents want a return on their investment. There is no point turning out fine upstanding citizens if they don’t get into a good college.
The further education “industry” is even more shameless. Lebanon has more than 40 “universities”, a shocking number for a country with an official population of 4 million. Of these, only a dozen – the American University of Beirut being the most prestigious – are in any way respected. The rest, as far as I can see, exist to brazenly exploit the Lebanese desire to make sure their kids get that all-important degree.
Many of these institutions advertise via billboard campaigns and have wedged the word “American” or “US” in their name, hinting at international credentials, but most of these are meaningless cooperation and exchange agreements with equally mediocre schools.
The latest institution to open its doors for business is the Université Libano-Française (ULF), which starts teaching its first batch of students this month at a new 25,000 square metre campus north of Beirut. ULF, which has three faculties: business, arts, and humanities and sciences, is apparently accredited by the Montreal and Paris-based Agence Universitaire de la Francophonie, but this has not stopped the ULF from shamelessly offering a 35 per cent discounts on course credits “to celebrate the inauguration of ULF Metn”.
In an online ad, ULF boasts “top-notch professors,” “a trendy cafeteria” and close proximity to one of Lebanon’s most popular shopping malls.
Call me old-fashioned, but I’d rather save my money.
Michael Karam is a freelance journalist who divides his time between Lebanon and the UK