The commodification of Higher Education
From the United Kingdom to Lebanon: cases of academic challenges that unveil underlying political tragedies
In times of severe economic crisis, like the one Lebanon is going through, education, one of the bulwarks of society, faces risk of collapse, leading to long-term social upheaval. To prevent such a situation, the state’s responsibility is to provide the education system with an immunity, making it less vulnerable and therefore less burdensome on society, especially on students and their families. However, with hyperinflation and loss of employment, family incomes are increasingly burdened by the costs of higher education provided largely by private and paying institutions which seek to limit their losses by dollarising the tuition fees (El-Hajj 2021). It is therefore legitimate – and vital – to address the question: is this education crisis the spontaneous result of the economic collapse, or is it the inevitable consequence of a system that has lasted for decades and has dealt with education as a mere commodity?
Having had the experience of higher education in Lebanon, in France and in the United Kingdom, the challenges facing higher education seem to me often to intersect, although the functioning of universities and academia is different from one country to another. For instance, in Lebanon and Britain, a gradual transformation of universities into commercial and competing institutions is common ground. But is this phenomenon purely academic? What is the part of politics in higher education problems? An insight into the history of the sector in both countries and the political decisions affecting it sheds some light on how the commercialisation of higher education came about and what a burden it places on students and their families. If the context remains largely different, considering a foreign case is a valuable exercise to reflect on experiences that lead to the same path and provide an opportunity to think about broader challenges and solutions.
The transformation of universities into competing commercial institutions
The higher education system is to some extent distinct between the different countries of the kingdom but in general UK universities are today semi-privatised. They are part privately funded, but the government subsidises them so that they are part public. This status was gained along the years through a process that changed their funding model several times. First, tuition fees were paid by UK students until 1976, the year when they were abolished. Again in 1998 -under the Labour Government of Tony Blair-, tuition fees (up to £1,000 a year) were reintroduced for undergraduate and postgraduate certificate students with the Teaching and Higher Education Act in all the countries of the United Kingdom. In 2006-07, tuition fee caps were increased up to £3,000 a year in England under the Higher Education Act 2004. This procedure was also introduced in Northern Ireland the same year and in Wales the following academic year. In 2010, the government took the decision to drastically curtail public spending on higher education by abridging direct grants to institutions following a review into higher education funding in England (the Browne Review). Consequently, the tuition fee cap was raised considerably to £9,250 a year. To avoid a decrease in the number of students entering universities and help them funding their studies, a new system of government-backed loans was introduced in the 1998 act and updated in the 2004 act, where repayment of student loans is required at the start of the following tax year after the student completes their education if their income is above the threshold fixed by the government. However, it is currently becoming undeniable that this funding model, which was established in parallel with a policy of reducing budget deficit, is inefficient since the government-backed loans will remain largely unpaid with a current estimate of over 80% of students being unable to fully pay back their loans. In addition to hampering the financial capacities of a whole generation of graduates, this model dreadfully pushed forward the marketisation and commodification of higher education, creating an atmosphere of customers and providers rather than proper publicly funded institutions of education. Its most substantial cultural impact is transforming universities into competing commercial institutions (The Guardian, 30 May 2021).
From its inception in the 19th century, Lebanese higher education has been dominated by the private sector. The first private universities were created between 1866 and 1939 while the Lebanese University was only launched in 1951 after a long battle initiated by students’ unions (mainly of Université Saint-Joseph) and teachers, who were backed by left-wing political parties and demanding equal access to higher education. However, the real blow to the education system came after the civil war, in the 1990s, when major structural changes in higher education took place, alongside the neoliberal policy adopted, favoring the private sector over the public one. Between 1990 and 2001, licenses were granted to 25 new private higher education institutions, mostly low-cost and for-profit establishments, without a national strategy study. We currently count 44 universities and institutes of higher education, which is a tremendously high number for a country of 10,452 km2 and nearly 6 million inhabitants. The major consequences of such a policy have been lack of coordination and cooperation strategy between the different universities, and competition between the private universities themselves and between the private and public sectors. In addition, a large gap has been created between the two sectors in terms of costs and teaching quality (Gharib and Hamdan-Saadé 2017). The consequences have also been dramatic at the socio-economic level. Expenditures on education are exceptionally high in Lebanon. The overall spending on education was estimated at 13.1% of the GDP for the academic year 2004-2005, out of which 4.1% was devoted to higher education. Furthermore, private financing largely exceeds public financing. The share of public expenditure on education was 4.1% of the GDP for 2004-2005, out of which 1.1% was dedicated to higher education; meanwhile private expenditure was estimated at 9% of the GDP, out of which 3% for higher education (Nahas 2009, tab.12 & 13). Hence, for the year 2004, Lebanese households spent 10.6% of their total expenditure on education, out of which 3.5% were spent on higher education (Nahas 2009, tab. 11). The high level of private expenditure on higher education is reflected in the fact that the Lebanese University receives only 34.6% of total students, as revealed by the year 2015 figures (Gharib and Hamdan-Saadé 2017). Expenditures on education are therefore amongst the highest in the world. For instance, the share of education expenditure in France’s GDP for the year 2000 was 6.2%, out of which only 0.4% were private expenditures (Nahas 2009, tab.13). Despite such high levels of spending, the ability of the courses to support changes in economic and social conditions related to the job market is low (Abdul-Reda 2009; Gharib and Hamdan-Saadé 2017). A surplus crisis is underway; the number of graduates is steadily increasing (81% of young people aged 21-25 in 2007 against 66.2% in 2001), while the unemployment rate for graduates is also rising (11.1% in 2014 against 9.2% in 2007). This discrepancy generates a mass migration. Approximately 20,000 young people emigrate each year, causing a massive loss of human capital: nearly 55% of Lebanese graduates between 1995 and 2005 live abroad (Gharib and Hamdan-Saadé 2017). This tragic situation is a consequence of the lack of vision and strategic planning by the education authorities, generating a disruption between the academic world and the reality on the ground. Thus, the challenges facing Lebanese higher education are political and economic rather than strictly academic (Gharib and Hamdan-Saadé 2017).
Funding cuts: a misreading of the academic functioning and the ‘job market’ reality
British universities are now faced with new decisions that do not look promising for higher education, particularly for the Arts and Humanities. Education secretary, Gavin Williamson, announced in 2021 that healthcare, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and specific labour market needs were priorities for the British Government (Hayes 2021). A 50% cut in government funding was also proposed for the Arts and Humanities (The Guardian, 30 May 2021). This announcement promptly impacted these disciplines and several universities (Chester, Sheffield, Worcester, York) launched the closure of departments such as Archaeology, Medieval Studies, School of Languages and Cultures, etc.
The Arts and Humanities have already been largely impacted by the increase of fees after 2010. These degrees attracted fewer students as the latter were made to feel that if they study these subjects, they would not be able to pay back the loans that they had taken out to pay the massive fees. This measure was the big catalyst for the devaluing of Arts and Humanities and the spending cuts announced will only worsen the situation.
As an archaeologist myself, I will stress here on the current threats to the Archaeology sector. Archaeology has been “reclassified as a high-cost, non-strategic area of study” (Hayes 2021) and university departments are directly affected by the funding cut whereas they have been beneficiaries of the higher education teaching grant in the past. This political decision pushed universities facing fluctuation in the number of Archaeology students during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic to close departments or merge them with other disciplines, preventing thus Archaeology from being a coherent subject developed in one indivisible department. However, an insight into the state of the archaeological market suggests that a greater number of Archaeology graduates is needed. A significant shortage of qualified archaeologists in Britain was documented in 2019. The country appears to lack the archaeological capacity required for major infrastructure projects planned across the UK over 17 years (Aitchison and Rocks-Macqueen 2020). This sector-wide shortage is now being exacerbated by the risk of departure of many European professionals after Brexit (11% of the archaeologists employed in commercial practice in the UK were from European countries in 2019; Aitchison and Rocks-Macqueen 2020) and Historic England expects a drop from 25 up to 64% in the archaeological workforce in the near-term future (Loughton and Renfrew 2021). This situation is regrettable given that archaeology contributes significantly to the UK economic and cultural sector. According to the All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group, “the Gross Value-Added contribution from the heritage sector to the UK’s GDP in 2019 was £14.7 billion, [and] commercial Archaeology generated total revenue of £239m in 2018-19. For every £1 spent in on Local Authority Planning Archaeology, the local economy benefits from an average return of £15” (Loughton and Renfrew 2021). Hence, this drive to cut costs launched by the government is targeting a thriving sector and shows that this political move is poorly premeditated.
Looking back at Lebanon’s case, Arts and Humanities receive less than 20% of university students (Nahas 2009, 30). The disciplines are prone to unjustified criticism for being unnecessary for growth (Nahas 2009, 31), spoiling the social perception of these degrees. Regarding Archaeology, in the 2010s a renowned private university in the Keserwan district, shut down the Department of History that also used to provide teaching in Archaeology and History of arts. This department was merged within the faculty of Fine Arts and only a few courses were maintained. The apparent reason behind this decision was the insufficient number of students. However, the department was already suffering from problems that made it unattractive, such as the lack of laboratories and fieldwork, adding to that tuition fees of $2000 (back in the 2000s). The closure of the department of History has deprived an entire region (from Batroun to Jounieh) of an education in History and Archaeology, while neither public transportation nor the availability of student accommodation make it easy to transfer to other universities, the closest being Balamand to the North and the Lebanese University II (Fanar branch) to the South. Therefore, just as is currently happening in Britain, the university decided to end the teaching of History and Archaeology as coherent subjects instead of investing in the department and making it more attractive to students. That is not surprising in a country where Archaeology and culture in general does not benefit from a decent state budget.
Information on the Archaeology budget of the Lebanese state and universities is hard to assess as it is not made publicly available. However, the Ministry of Culture that oversees the Directorate General of Antiquities has amongst the lowest budgets of all ministries. The annual budget is set at 40 billion Lebanese pounds, that was equivalent to $26,5 million prior to 2019, out of which $24 million was devoted to salaries (Makarem 2017). With the ongoing devaluation of the Lebanese currency, the budget is now equal to $3 million (cf the Lebanese state budget for the year 2022). In general, the sector in Lebanon needs more field archaeologists and more funds for research and publication, not to mention the financial necessities for the management and development of Heritage sites. In addition to the economic challenges, there is also an educational issue regarding Heritage and Archaeology. The subject is absent from school programmes, and it falls to the Ministry of Education to list it as a mandatory topic and incite schools to introduce more cultural subjects in their curricula whereas the latter are currently merely considered as recreational activities (Kayata-Eid 2017).
The problem is political, as is the solution
These two examples on Archaeology in Lebanon and the UK suggest that education is not always perceived as a right, while, on the other hand, profit is given importance and priority. This vision led to ignoring the most beneficial solution in the long term, which is to invest in the departments in difficulty, rather than fall back on the unchallenging solution of ending the teaching of Archaeology as a coherent subject. Nevertheless, education is a public good that requires a clear vision and national planning. Investments should be made from public taxes and not be a burden on students and their families. Most of all, education should not be regarded as a commodity and departments should not be turned into atomised units whenever the profit declines. Hence, reorganising the direct funding relationship between government and universities could put an end to such problems facing education in the UK. With regards to the Lebanese case, free education is provided by the Lebanese University (LU). However, a set of improvements is required to enhance the attraction of the LU as compared to private universities.
Firstly, geographic inequality illustrated by the unequal distribution of the teaching of disciplines between the different LU branches must be resolved (Nahas 2009, 52). An effective solution would be to centralise the teaching of a discipline within one or two branches of the Lebanese University. This solution is even more necessary as multiplying the number of faculties and departments amid the regional branches inflates the public expenses and prevents the intermingling of the students (DAR – IAURIF 2004). Undeniably, the branches of the university have evolved into sectarian campuses over the years (Nahas 2020). A way to end these social and financial problems would be to maintain only the four main branches (North, Beirut, Bekaa, South) of the university and distribute the faculties onto the regional branches according to the economic or socio-cultural activities that characterise each said region. For instance, the faculty of Agriculture and Food Sciences would be best located in an agricultural area such as the Bekaa valley or North Lebanon. The same principle applies to Archaeology which would be best implemented, for example, in an area that will be undergoing a vast development programme as the infrastructure works would offer fieldwork opportunities to train students and contribute to enhance the historical aspect of the region in question. Having said that, the department of Archaeology, even though centralised, would need to collaborate closely with all the regional departments of the Directorate General of Antiquities to supply the need for training in cultural heritage management and traditional surveys and excavations.
Secondly, to better instigate the centralisation of the faculties, student accommodation and transport should be facilitated to prompt a fair access to higher education. Thirdly, the money saved by limiting expenditure must be used for the development of laboratories and work tools.
In a nutshell, in a country where the economy has utterly collapsed, like in Lebanon, planning higher education according to economic needs may be beneficial. A national strategy would therefore need to be developed to revive the economy by promoting sectors which are more productive or require less resources than others. The economic and political programme of Citizens in a State endorses this vision (see MMFD vision for higher education here). Nonetheless, there are disciplines, like Archaeology, that we must not do without. In our current world, dominated either by incensed ideologies or by the market, we need subjects like Archaeology to understand who we truly are and to rethink our diversities in the light of our understanding of our development processes. Archaeology is a multidisciplinary subject that magnificently combines the humanities and the techniques of science and fieldwork (Loughton 2021) to understand human diversity, the biocultural processes from which it emerged and the historical conditions under which it developed (Barrett 2021, 1). Archaeology allows us to break with modern-day livid ideologies and to tackle some of the political and ethical challenges that we face nowadays by teaching us that our diversities are neither the results of biological nor cultural determinism but are constructed out of our interpretation of the material ecologies within which we evolve (Barrett 2021, 5-7). We are therefore not justified to impose an interpretation upon others by overpowering them. Neither are we justified to destruct an environment and deny the ways in which others can perceive and interpret it (Barrett 2021, 140).
In fine, this brief insight into higher education in Lebanon and the UK shows that the challenges are obviously political to a large extent and are the consequences of systems that deal with education as a commodity. Higher education must be one of the bases of the social and economic strategies that should be put in place in Lebanon for a way out of the crisis. Whilst it is still not perceived as such, our responsibility as individuals is to get engaged and promote political programmes that consider higher education as a major component in rebuilding an immune economy and a strong and independent state.
Member of Citizens in a State (Higher Education committee)
- Abdul-Reda A. S. (2009), « Le Liban », in Labaki, Enseignement supérieur et marché du travail dans le monde arabe, Beyrouth, Presses de l’Ifpo, 217-245.
- Aitchison K. and Rocks-Macqueen D. (2020), State of the archaeological Market 2019, published by Federation of Archaeological Managers and Employers.
- DAR – IAURIF (Dar al Handasah & Institut d’Aménagement et d’Urbanisme de la Région Ile-de-France) (2004), Schéma Directeur d’Aménagement du Territoire Libanais (SDATL): rapport final.
- Gharib Y. and Hamdan-Saadé N. (2017), « L’enseignement supérieur au Liban : un paysage complexe », Revue internationale d’éducation de Sèvres
- Hayes D. (2021), “Closing the Department down would be a travesty”, Sheffield Tribune, 12 June 2021.
- Kayata-Eid G. (2017), « Rony Araygi : Bouillon de Culture » in Agenda Culturel, 10 septembre 2017 https://www.agendaculturel.com/article/Divers_Rony+Araygi_Bouillon_de_culture
- Loughton T. and Renfrew A.C (2021), “Letter on behalf of the All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group at Westminster to Professor Koen Lamberts, President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sheffield”, 18 June 2021.
- Makarem (2017), « 180 millions de dollars pour faire rayonner la culture », L’Orient-Le Jour, le 6 juillet 2017.
- Nahas C. (2009), Financing and Political Economy of Higher Education in Lebanon, Beirut, Economic Research Forum.
- Nahas C. (2020), An Economy and A State for Lebanon, Beirut, Riad el-Rayyes Books.
- The Guardian Editorial (2021), The Guardian view on funding universities: the market model isn’t working, 30 May 2021.
- ، إسقاط قانون منع دولرة الأقساط: يهدّد حرية التعليم، الأخبار، الاثنين 5 تموز 2021 (2021) فاتن الحاج
 With the ongoing inflation, education expenses are roughly estimated at 30% of the households’ total expenditure
 This figure has dramatically increased since the financial collapse of 2019