(MENAFN - Oxford Business Group) Lebanon's incoming government has been given a clarion call to improve the country's educational system and remove inequalities.
Though Lebanon guarantees universal education under its constitution and ensures equal access for all citizens, while dedicating at least 4.4% of GDP to funding the system, the academic network has been the subject of widespread criticism. In particular, the apparent weakness of the public education system, which has led to the establishment of a substantial private school and university system. Though state spending on education as a percentage of GDP is comparable to the average across the member countries of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, private spending, which runs at around 7% of GDP, is up to three times higher.
While this may reflect a strong commitment by families who can afford to provide quality education to their children, this level of spending also suggests widespread dissatisfaction with the public system.
Indeed, Lebanon has more students attending private schools than public ones and more teachers working in the private sector than for the state, according to figures from the Centre for Educational Research and Development.
In its recent National Human Development Report for Lebanon, the UN Development Programme (UNDP) said that the major challenge facing the country's education system was not ensuring access to the learning process but improving the quality of the services provided.
The report, entitled "Towards a Citizen's State" and released by the UNDP on June 30, said that by bolstering education, strengthening the regulatory role of the state and removing political or sectarian influence at the university level would not only make the system more efficient but also help develop the Lebanese economy.
"Improving the educational system can have a significant impact on building human capital, insuring an effective and well-trained labour force, and, in the process, decreasing poverty," the report said.
The study was critical of some elements of state policy towards education, which it said actually broadened the gap between students from low- and higher-income families and led to inequitable access to services. One instance cited in the report were the subsidies provided to civil servants to support the education of their children. Up to 90% of students from families of public employees attend private schools, with almost 20% of public spending on education being channeled via scholarships to these students.
While some 30% of Lebanese students came from families in the lower-middle and low-income brackets, they only benefitted from 9.6% of educational funding, the report said.
Though the report said Lebanon had sufficient numbers of schools to meet its educational needs, it was the quality of resources provided that had to be improved, especially in rural areas and regions away from the main urban centres.
This view is supported by figures that show higher illiteracy rates in the Beqaa and Southern Lebanon regions. Additionally, lower levels of students from the north of the country progress to university after completing elementary school compared to those educated in Beirut or the Mount Lebanon districts.
With the UNDP report attempting to promote the development of a more hemogonised and harmonious nation, it warned of social misbalance in the country if the educational situation was not addressed.
"A good number of private educational institutions are politically and religiously affiliated. Many of these institutions provide education primarily to their supporters, thus reinforcing the allegiance of citizens to their closed community or religious sect. This in turn weakens the bond between citizens and their state," it said.
Significantly for the country's economy, the UNDP study reported that many poor students dropped out of school because they believed that they would occupy the same level of jobs irrespective of educational achievements.
The state minister, Ibrahim Shamseddin, who attended the launch of the report in Beirut, said the findings of the study were an important resource for understanding economic, social and political development.
"The citizen's state needs a real reform plan that brings together all the Lebanese," he said.
With the need to foster national reconciliation following the recent election and to build for the future, the new government may face a sharp learning curve.