Lebanon Pulse

Lebanon university strike threatens students’ futures

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Article Summary
As the Lebanese parliament is considering austerity measures that would see public wages slashed, the Lebanese University continues its open-ended strike, with students missing classes for weeks now.

BEIRUT — Professors at the Lebanese University have been striking for a month, with no end in sight, over proposed plans to not only cut the wages of the teachers, but also other parts of the budget of Lebanon’s only public university.

By instituting austerity measures as part of a reform project, Prime Minister Saad Hariri is hoping to be able to unlock $11 billion that was promised at the Paris conference in 2018.

Since the start of the strike May 6, students have been unable to attend classes, which has put their futures at risk, with some organizing protests to call for an end to the strike.

Joseph Loutfi, a third-year student studying petroleum geoscience, expressed concern about his ability to start a postgraduate degree following the completion of his program.

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“I was actually thinking about doing my master’s abroad, so I was really concerned at first about how I am going to finish my degree, how am I going to get my degree and diploma and start applying,” he told Al-Monitor. “My studies aren’t very specific, so I need to know what kind of things in the geology science field I can continue in.”

Despite the strike, Loutfi was able to partake in previously planned fieldwork as the academics who are leading it were coming from countries such as France and Cyprus and were unable to reschedule.

During the fieldwork, Loutfi and his colleagues asked their professors what will happen following the strike.

“We asked them what they are going to do after the strike, and they were very reassuring,” Loutfi said, “They said nothing will be canceled, and we will take all of the necessary courses.”

Loutfi added that he only has a couple of courses left to complete and, therefore, has not been as severely affected by the strike as students in other majors.

Nagham el-Any, a third-year physics student, expressed more concern about her future.

“It does worry me,” she told Al-Monitor, “If we, for example, don’t finish this semester, then we’re going to have to do it again next year or, maybe, we’ll have to spend the summer at the university instead of trying to find jobs. Or it could extend until next fall.”

She added, “I can sacrifice a summer rather than sacrificing an entire semester next year. I think that this is something that applies to a lot of students, especially those who are thinking about going abroad for their master’s degrees.”

Any said that if the strike continues into the fall semester, then she might transfer her credits to another university, but that would mean having to spend thousands of dollars.

“If the strike does go on [into the fall semester], then I might transfer my credits to another university just to finish this degree and go on,” she said, adding, “If there is no definite end in three to four months, then I am not going to jeopardize my future.”

Still, she might have to postpone doing her master’s since she would have to take another year to complete her courses and would have to potentially find work to start paying off a loan she would need to take out to attend another university.

“I might need to postpone my master’s, so I might be losing a year and I may need to work if I want to pay [to attend] a private university either during my studies or after, to pay off a loan instead of putting that money directly into doing a master’s degree,” Any said solemnly.

Samer Daher, the head of the League of Lebanese University Full-Time Professors, does not believe that the strike will continue until the fall semester.

“I have faith that the government will at least talk with us before then,” Daher told Al-Monitor. “Probably half of our demands will be met and that might be enough.”

Neither the Ministry of Education and Higher Education or the Ministry of Finance responded when asked for comment. However, Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil previously previously said the university’s budget would not be cut.

Daher said the professors are not only on strike because of proposed wage and budget cuts, but also because professors would see their pensions cut.

“We are demanding that they do not remove money from the pensions because it affects their health and how they teach,” he said.

He said the professors group is calling for more teachers who are working on contract to be given full-time status.

“There are two kinds of full-time professors,” Daher said. “One is full time, but the second needs to renew their contract with the government every year. They are demanding that these second full-time professors be given regular status because they shouldn’t have to renew their status every year. Sometimes, if there is another professor or dean who doesn’t like another professor, then they might refuse to renew their contract.”

In addition to lacking tenure, contract professors are also paid less than full-time ones and are paid hourly rather than a fixed annual salary. In the event of a budget cut to the university, more contract professors might be removed, as the university might no longer be able to afford them.

Professors are also calling for the raises that the government promised them in April 2018 when there was another strike at the Lebanese University. The professors were eventually promised an immediate raise of 3%.

“The government is also not giving the professors their raises and salaries. Some government workers were given them last year, but the teachers weren’t,” Daher said. “We are demanding that the government at least give us this raise in installments.”

Despite their concerns for their futures because of the strike, both Loutfi and Any said that they support the professors and their efforts.

“I’m all for the professors getting their rights,” Loutfi said. “But I don’t think that this is the proper way to get them. There are lots of ways to take what’s yours from the government and I don’t think that this strike, right now at this specific time, is the best course of action. We’ve been on strike for three weeks now and I don’t think that it is promising the results that they were expecting. And I think that it is starting to cause damage.”

Any said, “I was and still am, in principle, with the strike. The professors do have a point, their rights are being taken away. And I am actually more with the strike now than I was before, seeing how the budget cuts will affect the only public university available in Lebanon. If these budget cuts keep happening for a couple of more years, then I’m not sure if the university will be able to run anymore. If this university closes, then a lot of people won’t be able to have a higher education anymore — seeing that all other universities [in Lebanon] are private ones that cost $10,000 and up a year.”

Loutfi also mentioned that he was worried about what further budget cuts could mean for the university. Last year, the budget saw a cut of $26.6 million and this year’s planned cuts would see an additional $26.6 million removed.

“There’s no more money at hand, there is a lot of equipment that is missing, lab equipment and school and classroom materials,” Loutfi said. “It’s completely normal to go into a class of 20 students and find five chairs and no pens or erasers. In the lab, there isn’t enough equipment for the whole group. Some have to help and some have to observe. Even for the fieldwork that we were supposed to go on, we [the students] had to pay for most of it.”

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Nicholas Frakes is a freelance journalist and photojournalist based in Lebanon. He covers the Middle East for multiple outlets, including the New Arab and Public Radio International. On Twitter: @nicfrakesjourno

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