Not so long ago, Western students wanting to study in the Arab world flocked to Cairo and Damascus.
But as last year’s Egyptian uprising and enduring unrest in Syria made those once-secure locales more dangerous, Americans wanting a safer semester abroad started going in larger numbers to a place long synonymous with war and danger but of late experiencing peace: Beirut.
While the Arab Spring uprisings toppled governments in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen and led to crackdowns in Bahrain, Syria and elsewhere, the Lebanese capital remained relatively calm.
Higher education in Lebanon has rapidly expanded in the past decade, with a 50% increase in enrolment and a rise to 54% in the number people who are eligible going into higher education, according to 2009 Unesco data. But this massification has not been accompanied by parallel legislative and administrative reforms.
As a result, the reputation and academic achievements of Lebanon's universities are at risk and the standing of the Lebanese higher education system may be in jeopardy. For instance, although Lebanon has witnessed a steady increase in international student enrolment since 2000, numbers are still lower than pre-1975 levels.
It is time for the government and all stakeholders to reform the system with an emphasis on quality provision. Both old and new institutions need to improve their strategic planning, quality assurance and accreditation mechanisms. This cannot be done without standardised, shared data and indicators on institutional and national levels.
Historically, the higher education sector in Lebanon has been at the forefront of national and regional skills development.
Private universities in particular have made a major contribution to the sector, with their share of enrolment rising from 40% in 2000-01 to 57% in 2008-09.
The history of higher education in Lebanon dates back to the second half of the 19th century when the Syrian Evangelical College, since renamed The American University of Beirut, or AUB, was founded in 1866, followed by Saint Joseph University (USJ) in 1883. What is now known as the Lebanese American University (LAU) evolved mainly from 1924 when it started providing college-level education for girls after being a boarding school for a few decades.
Later in the mid-20th century, the establishment of the Beirut Arab University and the Lebanese University furthered access and participation.
The sector has been largely built on the reputation of such well-established institutions, as well as on the general role that Lebanon played before the 1975-90 civil war in educating generations of Lebanese and Arabs and providing quality education in a challenging regional context.
However, this residual reputation is now in danger in an era when higher education in the region is undergoing rapid change, and when the sector as a whole is globalising and standards and services are converging.
Growing regional competition for the development of educational hubs, mainly in the Gulf, has become a game changer over the past five years. This has been accompanied by 'free' governmental investment. Other countries, such as Jordan, are taking drastic measures to revamp their systems.
Many problems are still hindering the prospects of transforming higher education in the region, mainly the difficulties in recruiting the local people needed to work and study in these state-of-the-art facilities. Meanwhile, Lebanese universities are failing to communicate the advantages that the higher education sector has to offer the region at a time when competition is rising steeply.
Moreover, the sector lacks quality assurance mechanisms on a national level; efforts to establish a body in charge of quality assurance have progressed slowly and are not yet in place.
There has been an increase in licensing new private universities in the past decade, but this has not improved matters much. The Lebanese University, with limited government funding and conflicting political and sectarian interests hindering its development, has been unable to accommodate increased student demand.
The increase in licensing was mainly driven by profit-seeking motives, but many of the new universities have had to offer relatively low tuition fees to attract students from low-income families. All of this has had a knock-on effect on quality.
Reforms are needed which reconcile affordability, participation, quality and autonomy. A business-as-usual approach to management of the sector is becoming increasingly costly and unsustainable.
Historically, the state has been weak in Lebanon and private organisations have often taken the role of providing educational services and enjoyed a high degree of autonomy. But this phenomenon has not been accompanied by a sense of public accountability or transparency. Similarly, self-regulation is almost non-existent.
While some fiercely oppose any regulatory intervention by the government, others are sceptical about its effectiveness. However, article 10 of the constitution, which establishes the principle of freedom of education, acts as a safeguard, ensuring institutional autonomy. Thus there is a possibility of striking a balance between transparency, accountability and autonomy.
Students clearly want more accountability as is shown by the demonstrations staged by AUB and LAU students in May 2010, questioning their administrations' plans to raise tuition fees. These demonstrations led to open discussion about universities' financial operations and financial support for students.
Old and new universities need to undertake major reforms, in terms of strategic planning, quality assurance and accreditation. The challenge is how to implement them without raising tuition fees too high.
Older universities, or those which have stronger legacies and greater resources, will implement widespread reforms to maintain their standing in this market. The good news is that some universities - AUB, LAU and USJ - have brought in quality assurance and accreditation mechanisms while undertaking strategic planning.
It is about time local institutions started sharing their experiences and examples of best practice. There are some success stories and other universities should know about them.
For new institutions, reforms may seem problematic, mainly because their only resources come from fees.
They need to take a different approach. The government should explore a new system of classification. Not all institutions need to be 'universities'. Classification should be based on an input-processes-output-outcome performance. Mergers could also form part of a larger restructuring process.
The whole issue is highly controversial and will face potentially insurmountable political opposition. But the economic rationale for reform may become unstoppable.
However, the success of any reforms cannot be measured without a strong and reliable national database on higher education institutions. Performance indicators cannot be established without up-to-date, high-quality data on the country's institutions.
The interplay between institutional and national data will give a clearer picture of how the sector is doing and will enable serious strategic planning. Reform cannot happen while fundamental data and indicators are still lacking.
If Lebanon is to maintain the standing of its higher education sector in the Middle East and beyond, face the challenges thrown up by the changing nature of the sector and meet the requirements of the knowledge economy, new leadership, vision and mobilisation are necessary.
Passing the draft law on higher education currently before parliament, while speeding up the clearance of the draft law on higher education quality assurance to be presented to the cabinet, should be the cornerstones of any reforms. This will establish solid foundations for future ratings and classifications and help maintain excellence.
However, with the recent collapse of Lebanon's unity government and the possibility of a long political crisis, it is difficult to know what will happen to either of the higher education laws.
Alain Hasrouny is a researcher based in Beirut. This article is based on a research study he prepared for the Muhanna Foundation. The report, Private Universities in Lebanon: Performance Indicators, Accountability and Value-for-Money, can be freely obtained here
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