Unemployment is one of the major manifestations of the global economic crisis that began to plague many countries around the globe, beginning in 2007. Developing nations with weak economies and fragile political states were among the hardest hit. In Egypt, one can find PhDs driving taxies. No country can afford, either politically or economically, such well-educated traffic guides. Higher education graduate unemployment rates in Lebanon are high and are unlikely to be reduced soon. Both the government and the higher education sector need to address the issues of the youth bulge and its impact on the preparedness of graduates to compete in both domestic and international labor markets.
Youth populations have been impacted the most by the economic downturn, especially in countries with high birth rates. According to the United Nations Population Fund, the annual growth rate is currently estimated at 1.2% for the world and 2.5% for the Arab states.Lebanon is no exception. A “youth bulge” created by high birth rates, coupled with an overcrowding of the higher education graduate labor market and a clear absence of both government and university planning, has produced a well-educated youth unemployment crisis in the country.
Youth unemployment in Lebanon is estimated to be as high as the average rate for the Arab region (roughly 26%).One third of the extremely poor university graduates are unemployed (contrasted with one out of five for better off university graduates). This is politically risky, as it has some potential to destabilize Lebanon. Several factors have contributed to this crisis, including: the current youth bulge; a sudden growth in the number of private institutions of higher education; and a current lack of national concern for sustaining a high quality “Lebanese brand” for higher education, both for domestic consumption and for export.
The current population of Lebanon is about 4.25 million. About one half (48.7%) of the population is under 25, while the youth population in Lebanon (15–24 years) is currently estimated at 22.9% or roughly 975,000. With a current growth rate of 1.2%, the new total will be about 1,035,000 by 2015.
To meet growing youth bulge demands in the past, the Lebanese government encouraged a rapid expansion of private higher education institutions between 1999 and 2002. It was believed that these organizations were best equipped to respond to growing labor market needs. Consequently, the number of private higher education institutions more than doubled in the country. Lebanon’s families responded and the country now has one of the highest higher education enrollment rates among the Arab states. 30% of the youth aged 20–24 are registered at one university or another in the country.Today, there is one national public university, along with 28 privately owned universities and over 20 technical institutes.
After the civil war ended, the rise in the number of private higher education institutions in the country generated market competition for new students. Unfortunately, at that same time, relatively few investments were made to drive up the supply of highly qualified secondary education graduates. Consequently, the additional higher education institutions have led to increased recruitment of inadequately prepared students.
In the past, the strong reputations of the public and a few private universities created a high-quality Lebanese “brand.” These institutions were able to export much of the youth bulge to the Gulf and elsewhere. When the Lebanese government opened higher education to private markets, however, it did not consider the consequences of this policy as well as continued pressure for university access on Lebanon’s reputation. This oversight almost guaranteed that the national reputation would deteriorate.
Both the government’s laissez faire approaches to investments in the economic security of the next generation, and the universities’ inability to self-organize for quality assurance, have contributed to the current and growing youth unemployment crisis within the country. Today, as they try to export their current youth bulge, neither the government nor the universities themselves can demonstrate consistent quality among their graduates. It has therefore become increasingly difficult for even the most elite institutions to escape the need to help employers reduce their hiring risks. The entire sector needs to promote accountability through better national and international quality assurance.
Today, most policy leaders in Lebanon still have not yet shifted their strategic thinking about higher education policy from greater access toward quality that leads to employment. University presidents across the country are expressing growing concerns for their jobless graduates. A recent study looked at university presidents’ perspectives of the role of higher education institutions in addressing the youth unemployment crisis in Lebanon. Interviews with the presidents of the 28 private universities and the one public university revealed several significant issues. These included: a) the level of awareness the presidents had about the crisis; b) the perceived proper roles of higher education institutions in addressing the crisis; and c) the perceived factors involved and their consequences.
First, preliminary findings revealed that only about 20% of the presidents were both aware of the crisis at hand and were actively taking action to address it. For example, in addition to the traditional job fairs that all universities held annually, a few institutions had created additional programs that enabled students to have practical training prior to graduation. These programs provided students with experience in real life work environments.
Only two of the 29 presidents interviewed identified the need for job creation, despite the fact that current labor market absorption rates are unable to meet youth bulge demand for jobs, either before or after graduation. Consequently, few discussed programs that fostered critical entrepreneurship skills. Some participants identified in detail external factors that interacted with each other, intensifying current conditions. At the same time, internal factors such as the management of institutional or sector quality were not addressed.
Second, preliminary findings also showed that some universities were individually taking an increasingly proactive role within the country. The presidents highlighted the needs for new programs that transcended old disciplinary boundaries, and catered to today’s realistic needs of Lebanon and beyond. For example, a number of presidents from the private institutions suggested that some universities might move out of the city into rural regions, so they could assist people there by providing them with university education that addressed local needs and helped develop local communities. In turn, they hoped that it would help young people learn to be proud of their country, culture, and history.
Interestingly, a number of presidents from private universities complained that the public Lebanese University (LU) had become so proactive in recruiting students from local communities that it had become “the source of the [youth unemployment] crisis.” Some believed that the government’s only public institution was pressured by the government to accept considerably more students than the job markets either in Lebanon or today’s Gulf region could bear. They believed that LU was under chronic local political pressure to accept many students who were poorly prepared. From the position of some of the private universities, LU was thought to be politically astute in the short term and economically clueless. This was dangerous for the whole country.
Finally, policymakers across the board were concerned about the social consequences of jobless graduates, such as youth delinquencies, family problems, and crime. They were also concerned about the economic consequences, such the loss of human capital, economic stagnation, and poverty leading to strife. Extremism was also noted as a leading potential consequence of jobless graduates. As such, a number of those interviewed discussed how easily the educated youth were being drawn to religious and political militias because, in most cases, they had no other option but to join or “starve.”
In response to this crisis, we suggest the following policy recommendations:
• A National Commission for Quality Assurance Standards in Higher Education: Quality ambiguity was reported as a factor leading to high jobless graduation rates. This commission should, as its scope of concern, include the entire higher education sector. It should be housed directly in the office of the Directorate General of Higher Education.
• Sector-wide Planning: Strategic planning has been initiated by the Directorate General of Higher Education. Efforts to include the private institutions in both the planning and implementations processes are necessary. Their inclusion may help ensure a sector-wide commitment. Concerns for the quality of secondary education need to be addressed.
• University Consortium: We believe that the Directorate General of Higher Education should foster the development of an independent, voluntary, cooperative planning consortium comprised of all universities. It should inform and be informed by government policy. It should serve as a vehicle for initiating and coordinating cooperative institutional projects, academic activities, and policy initiatives that support the growth of national interests.
There appears to be a willingness on behalf of the private universities to play a role in addressing the crisis and take more responsibility for creating job opportunities. Now the Lebanese government needs to step up to its responsibility.
. Making 1 Billion Count: State of the World Population 2003 (New York: United Nations Population Fund, UNDP, 2003).
. “What We Do/The Millennium Development Goals in Lebanon.”
. Human Development Report 2009 (New York: United Nations Development Program, 2009).
. Human Development Report 2009.