Students struggle as crisis in Lebanon paralyzes university sector

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A university student takes a remote course at his home in Beirut, but staying connected during state power outages that can last more than 20 hours a day comes at a financial cost – Copyright AFP ANWAR AMRO

Clara Guillard

Electricity shortages and soaring oil prices mean that many Lebanese university students cannot afford to go to class or study from home, a conundrum ravaging the future of a generation.

Agnes, a 22-year-old dental student from southern Lebanon, is one of the few people who continues to work in Beirut four days a week.

The five hours she spends daily on a bus now costs her 1.3 million Lebanese pounds a month – “that’s half my father’s salary,” she said.

Such spending is now beyond the reach of most Lebanese students, as their country is in the throes of a financial, political and health crisis that has ravaged its economy.

The national currency has lost over 95% of its value on the black market, and the minimum wage of 675,000 pounds is worth just over $ 20, which barely pays for a full tank of gas.

Transportation “is getting more expensive than my semester’s tuition,” said Tarek, a 25-year-old student at the Islamic University of Lebanon who, like others interviewed, declined to give a last name.

As a result, and also because teachers face similar difficulties, many universities continue to offer online courses.

But staying connected during power outages that often last more than 20 hours a day also comes at a cost.

– Back to books –

Amina, 22, a student at the Lebanese Public University, said she had returned to most of her work from books due to the lack of electricity at home.

There are “around 75 students in the class, of which a maximum of five” can attend online, she said, adding that she has to study around nine hours a day to keep up with the delays.

To run laptops and modems, families have to pay for expensive private generators, but this option is also unaffordable for many.

Some students spend their money on mobile phone data so that they can connect their computers to an Internet access point.

Spaghetti cabling connecting laptops, routers, and phone chargers to all kinds of backup devices – from commercial uninterruptible power supplies to homemade contraptions using car batteries – means study areas now often look like the back of a computer workshop.

“All of this is an additional cost,” said Ghassan, 22, a student at the University of Wisdom.

Several institutions have set up special funds for students in an attempt to maintain enrollment levels, said Jean-Noël Baleo, director of the Middle East of the Agence universitaire de la Francophonie, a network of francophone institutions. .

“Some universities keep students who cannot pay, which is a form of hidden scholarship,” he told AFP.

But he said such quick fixes barely slowed the decline of a higher education system that was once a source of national pride and whose multilingual graduates inundated the region’s elites.

– ‘Collapse’ –

“This is a collapse we’re talking about, and there’s more bad news on the way,” said Baleo, who predicted some universities will shut down permanently and the brain drain will intensify.

Education Minister Abbas Halabi admitted he was largely powerless to stem the sector’s crisis.

“I tried to get grants for the Lebanese University from foreign donors but at this stage they have not responded positively,” he told AFP.

“The Lebanese state does not have the means.

Even as the financial crisis threatens several pillars of the country’s education system, the Lebanese political elite – largely blamed for the collapse – have resisted reforms that would pave the way for international aid, and the cabinet has failed. is not reunited for three months.

“Today, the easiest solution is to set up online courses, although that is still a difficult option. Rising transportation costs make it the less bad solution, ”Baleo said.

In the meantime, students like Tarek say the crisis has turned college life into a test.

“It’s exhausting and depressing,” he said.

“I’m considering leaving college… The wages are so bad that you don’t even have the motivation to graduate to find a job,” he said.

Student Ghassan said he only wanted to graduate so he could help him leave the country.

“All the young people want to leave because there is no clear future here,” he said.

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