Universities in Lebanon are divided as follows: 35 private universities, nine institutes and colleges, and three institutes for religious studies, as well as the official state university, i.e. the Lebanese University, as listed in the Ministry of Education’s website.
Universities are profitable businesses, but, more importantly, the majority of them, though not reflected in the ministry's census, have some sectarian affiliation. There are "Sunni" and "Shi’ite" universities, as well as "Maronite" and "Orthodox" ones.
Most of these universities obtained their licenses after the end of the civil war in 1990; a war that lasted more than 15 years, and during which the country witnessed a sharp decline in the quality of university-level education.
Over time, with the increasing number of private universities and institutes, questions have been raised over whether the quality of education at the official state university, the Lebanese University, has been affected by the changes in the educational landscape.
The Politics of the Lebanese University
Some may view the Lebanese University as the model of an educational edifice that does not align with sectarian followings, and does not follow a political ideology. After all, it constitutes a fundamental station in providing quality education to all social and economic segments of society, as well as the birthplace for an active student movement that played an operative role in political and cultural life in Lebanon.
However, some would argue that it is not a state university in the true sense, especially as there are differences in curricula that are politically relevant in the different branches of this university. Moreover, one cannot overlook the sectarian nature of its two branches, the first of which is dominated by Muslims, while the second is dominated by Christians.
The appointment of Fouad Ayoub as president of the Lebanese University is perhaps the most prominent indicator of the position that the political authorities have adopted toward the Lebanese University. Ayoub, who is politically affiliated with the Shi’ite community, was accused by a number of university professors and media outlets of having forged his doctoral certificate.
These charges have not been refuted or denied. Imad al-Husseini, the dentist who filed the lawsuit accusing Ayoub of forgery, said in a statement to the Lebanese Forces party’s news website that he went to the Ministry of Education to file his complaint to the Minister of Education, but was unable to meet with him. Instead he met with his advisor. "Her defense of Ayoub's doctoral certificate was surprising," he said at the time.
Indeed, as Ayoub was appointed president of the university, the position was considered part of the share allotted to the Shi’ite community, within the system of quotas that has been adopted by the state since the end of the war.
The Four Shi’ite Universities
A few weeks after the appointment of Ayoub, a video surfaced of a number of students at a building in the Hadath Campus, the only campus of the Lebanese University. In the video, the students are seen announcing their allegiance to Ali Khamenei, the leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran. This "celebration" took place only a few days after the election of the Maronite Michel Aoun as president of Lebanon, after a power vacuum that lasted for 31 months.
The scene differs at Maaref University, which was founded by Hezbollah, and where the academic year kicked off a few months ago. The party's supporters there did not hold celebrations pledging allegiance to Khamenei, the way his supporters did at the Lebanese University.
The promotional videos for the university advertize a normal student life, where male and female students share common spaces and are not segregated. Contrary to the political incitement prevalent at the Lebanese University, the Maaref University campus is seemingly free of tensions.
The university was inaugurated in October 2015 under the auspices of Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, represented by the head of the party's Executive Council Hashim Safi al-Din. The ceremony was held in the presence of one of Hezbollah's ministers in the Lebanese government, Hussein al-Hajj Hassan, the ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Iran Mohammad Fat'hali, and a number of academics, researchers, religious scholars, and representatives of educational institutions.
Following the civil war in Lebanon, the number of universities increased in parallel with the decline in the quality of education.
Who benefits from the multitude of universities with sectarian affiliations in Lebanon?
"At its core, the message of resistance is about self-reliance, and today our message is promoting science and progress accompanied by the spirit of resistance and authentic culture, through which our nation will be built," Safiuddin said during the inaugural ceremony.
The situation is not very different at Phoenicia University, which was inaugurated two years ago by the wife of the Speaker of the Parliament of Lebanon and the head of the Shi’ite Amal Movement, Nabih Berri. Similarly, the flags and slogans raised and sung by the movement's students at the Lebanese University are nowhere to be seen at this university.
In addition to these two universities, the Supreme Shi’ite Council in Lebanon administers the Islamic University in Lebanon. In the university's vision, it is states that it seeks to realize the same objectives as the Shi’ite Council.
The last of the four Shi’ite universities is the University of Sciences and Arts in Lebanon (USAL), which is run by the Al-Mabarrat Charity Association, founded by the late Shi’ite cleric Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah.
The most prominent Sunni political movement in Lebanon is the Future Movement. Under it falls the Rafik Hariri University, which bears the name of its founder, the former prime minister who was assassinated in 2005. His son, Saad Hariri, replaced his father as Prime Minister and head of the Future Movement. The movement is known to maintain close ties with Gulf countries, in particular Saudi Arabia. Nazik Hariri, the widow of Rafik Hariri, heads the university's Board of Trustees.
Another former prime minister—a position that falls under the “quota” allocated for Sunnis in Lebanon—also established a private university. In April 2015, Azm University was inaugurated by Najib Miqati.
"The history of our relations with the Gulf countries, first and foremost of which is Saudi Arabia, demand that we preserve and even develop them for the benefit of our nation and all its people in Lebanon and the Arab world," Miqati said during the inaugural ceremony.
Miqati is not the only Sunni politician who owns a university. Former minister Abdel Rahim Mourad owns the Lebanese International University, which has nine branches in Lebanon, as well as branches in other Arab countries. The university is considered one of the main sources of his popularity.
Moreover, Al-Manar University of Tripoli was founded by former Prime Minister Rashid Karami, and is currently headed by former minister Faisal Karami. Also in Tripoli, Mona Haddad, the wife of the late Islamic preacher and head of the Islamic Action Front, Fathi Yakan, founded Jinan University.
Dar al-Fatwa administers the Islamic University of Beirut, which is specialized in religious studies. Makassed Islamic Charitable Society owns Makassed University of Beirut. The Association of Islamic Charitable Projects, also known as the Al-Ahbash Association, owns Global University, which is headed by Adnan Trabelsi, the former member of the Lebanese parliament, as a representative of the association,.
Although Al-Ahbash Association is religious and Sunni-oriented, it is politically active and maintains a positive relationship with Hezbollah.
Universities are not exclusive to the Islamic sects; Christian missionaries were the first to open schools and universities in Lebanon. The most prominent of these may be the Université Saint-Joseph, founded by the Jesuit Fathers in 1875. The university has continued to play an important cultural, academic, and political role in Lebanon’s history.
The university is also referred to as the "University of Bachir Gemayel," the former president who was assassinated after his election in 1982, before taking office, during the Israeli occupation of Beirut.
Among the institutions run by the Maronite Church is La Sagesse University, which is headed by the current Archeparch of the Maronite Catholic Archeparchy of Beirut, Paul Matar. There is also the Université Sainte Famille in Batroun, which is run by the Maronite Sisters of the Holy Family. Another university owned by the institutions of the Maronite community is the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik, which is headed by Father George Hobeika.
The Antonine University in Baabda is administered by the Antonine monastery of Maronite Christians. The list of Maronite academic institutions also includes Notre Dame University–Louaize as well. The Orthodox Church has its own university, the University of Balamand, which is located in the Monastery of Balamand in northern Lebanon.
Is Religious Affiliation an Indicator of the Quality of Education?
There are nonetheless a number of universities with no sectarian affiliation in Lebanon, and there are no indications that the religious affiliation of a university is an indicator of its quality of education, nor of the opposite.
However, the large number of private universities in Lebanon that are associated with political and religious forces raises many questions, especially with the noticeable decline in the level of university education in Lebanon.
Further, the appointment of the administrations of Lebanese universities, as well as their budget and development projects, are directly subject to the authority of the Lebanese Ministry of Education and the Cabinet, leaving little space for independence.
These universities also promote sectarian and political loyalties and identities. The majority of the students at these universities belong to the same sect, and moreover the educational curricula and cultural options offered by these universities further cement sectarian ideology.
Further, a large number of these universities and others were established following the end of the civil war in 1990; a trend that corresponded with the general decline in the level of public education.
Among the benefits offered to organization and party supporters to secure their loyalty are university grants, particularly in light of the exorbitant tuition costs, compared to the average salaries in Lebanon.
In conclusion, the increase in sect-affiliated universities is a phenomenon that takes advantage of Article 10 of the Lebanese Constitution, which states that "Education is independent, insofar as it does not violate public order and morals, and does not affect the dignity of any of the religions or sects. There can be no violation of the rights of religious communities to establish their own schools, provided they follow the general rules issued by the state regulating public instruction."
Yet, ultimately, this begs the question: who stands to benefit from all of this?