Dear Members of our LAU Community, Building on a solid foundation that dates back to the mid-19th century, the Lebanese higher education sector was for a long time one of the country’s prime differentiators and regional attraction magnets. Together with t
  President’s Forum: Notes from Dr. Mawad  
Michel E. Mawad, M.D.

Dear Members of our LAU Community,

Building on a solid foundation that dates back to the mid-19th century, the Lebanese higher education sector was for a long time one of the country’s prime differentiators and regional attraction magnets. Together with the healthcare sector, higher education became Lebanon’s signature competitive advantage and a hub of excellence radiating way beyond its borders. We are grouping higher education and healthcare together as major universities in Lebanon operate their own medical centers, and the fortunes of both sectors are intertwined. 

From the work of missionaries that established AUB in the 1860s, USJ in the 1880s and LAU in the early 1920s with roots going back to 1835, grew a world-class higher education and healthcare sector that rose to iconic proportions and gave Lebanon a regional lead starting in the 1940s. This lead extended through the rest of the 20th century and well into the first decade of the 21st. 

The marked success of the higher education sector including the teaching medical centers associated with leading universities was reinforced in the 1950s with the establishment of the Lebanese University. This major step allowed access to higher education for thousands of talented Lebanese who might not have had this opportunity otherwise.

It was inevitable, however, for a successful sector mostly based on international, private, non-profit institutions to start attracting newcomers starting in the 1990s and peaked during the first 10 years of this century. This period was triggered by few not-for-profit institutions beginning in the 1980s and peaked with scores of for-profit institutions crowding the field. Today, they number well over 50 with varying standards and a net effect of creating risks and vulnerabilities the sector never had to contend with before. Recent allegations of degree forgeries are a case in point.

Needless to say, Lebanon’s protracted and multifaceted crisis created overwhelming economic, financial, logistic, academic and supply-chain problems. Both higher education and healthcare are now showing increasing signs of degeneration that warrant immediate attention. 

Already apparent in both sectors are symptoms that are increasingly becoming all too evident:

I. Symptoms that are increasingly visible in the Higher Education sector

a. Havoc wrought upon universities by economic collapse and currency meltdown. Institutions now have to work with several exchange rates. Part of this same problem is the increasing strain on the current business model of practically all private non-profit universities, which has been suddenly rendered unsustainable by the yawning gap between dwindling fees and fresh dollar obligations. 

b. Varying degrees of success in transitioning to online education with some successful early adopters all the way to laggards who were all but left behind. Few including LAU were decidedly ahead of the curve. 

c. The serious risk of lagging behind the state-of-the-art in higher education as a result of resource shortages of all kinds, and the devastating effects of the protracted crisis. Add to this the threat of being marginalized given the amazing progress being made in higher education and healthcare thanks to digital breakthroughs. The country that was for the better part of the last century the university and hospital of the region now faces the grim prospect of losing that role irreversibly. Great strides made on the branding front are now threatened by the ominous risk of debranding. 

II. Symptoms that are specific to the Healthcare sector

a. As stated earlier, the healthcare sector is closely linked to higher education given that practically all major universities have their own medical centers or hospital affiliates. Healthcare in Lebanon today is in deep crisis covering resources, capacity, physicians, nurses, a business model, insurance coverage and the patient’s ability to pay. This sector simply cannot escape the woes afflicting the mother sector of higher education. 

b. Both medical centers and community hospitals are now feeling the worst effects of physicians’ and nurses’ attrition, not to mention the skyrocketing prices of medical supplies, and the inability of many patients to pay. The diagnosis is pretty worrying and the prognosis is not promising. 

The way forward

To avoid the inevitable under the circumstances and stay the course against existential risks, both the higher education and healthcare sectors are compelled to take specific measures. The government is also called upon to facilitate the needed transition by showing greater respect for the independence of private-academic institutions. 

What can be done?

  1. The government will do well not to lose sight of the fact that the private non-profit university sector together with the Lebanese University made Lebanon a magnet for quality higher education and healthcare in the region. While the regulatory role of government is welcome, excessive bureaucratic controls are counterproductive. Many examples can be cited. As private institutions, they should be allowed the right to truly manage their own operating budget – something they have been doing successfully for well over a century.

  2. Major private universities are invited to effectively commence the transition toward new programs linked to the fourth industrial revolution. Examples include such digital specialties as Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Renewable Energy, Data Sciences and Robotics etc… Also needed are programs that are employment-driven and jointly pursued with industry. 

  3. Major universities are urged to work together to create coordination and complementarity in areas ranging from academic programs, cross-registration, fees policy and supply chain management. 

  4. Revisiting current business models and canvassing viable alternatives including restructuring fees and financial aid, currency normalization, pursuit of external grants, international alliances and active fundraising. 

  5. Building resource sharing and talent retention programs among major universities and hospitals in cooperation with government that can offer enabling incentives. 

I seek the opportunity to make a passionate plea to the Lebanese government to be mindful of the fact that major private universities are repositories for much of the assets needed to get out of the crisis. By the same token, I appeal to sister institutions to find ways to work together in pursuit of renewed energy and much-needed synergy. My special appeal is to the Lebanese intelligentsia and professional groups to support the struggle of major universities and hospitals to retain their competitive positions.

We are in the midst of a crisis that can and should be reversed through concerted efforts and purposeful measures. This is a call to action while the challenges are still surmountable. 


Michel E. Mawad, M.D.
Lebanese American University