The Business Side of Lebanese Education

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Al-Akhbar Management

By: Faten Elhajj

Published Monday, October 1, 2012

Parents of children in private schools often complain about the price of textbooks, but the head of the Scholastic Publishers Union defends the prices, which are set jointly by the union and the consumer protection agency at the Ministry of Economy.

“[Parents believe] the price of textbooks is very high and that’s it,” said head of the union, Elias Saad, adding that books

account for no more than 5 percent of the entire cost of schooling, which includes tuition, uniforms, stationary and transportation.

Still, Lebanese families are feeling the strain, and the percentage of students relying on secondhand books has risen from 30 percent to between 50-70 percent, according to Saad.

Saad explains that publishers employ educational committees specializing in all subjects. They also have research centers so that books can be written according to the curricula decided by the Ministry of Education. There are about 70 publishers specializing in privately produced textbooks, while official textbooks are published and priced by the Educational Institute for Research and Development.

Saad says that the union and the consumer protection agency price the books according to specific standards that have to do with the technical side of producing the book and not with its content – the quality of paper, cardboard, printing and binding and how all of this relates to the market price. He denies that publishers make cosmetic changes in order to increase the cost of the book from year to year.

“Change is essential because books have to keep in line with developments in educational methods in America and Europe,” he says.

Parents, however, are demanding that new editions be scrutinized and compared with old ones. Saad insists that the vast majority of publishers are scrupulous when it comes to bring out new editions, and that school administrations are free to reject these editions if they feel the changes are not substantial enough to justify a higher price.

Saad adds that books that are not changed drastically are kept at the old price by the union. However, he points out that the union does not have the right to interfere in the educational content. He believes that “there is a role for parent committees in this matter and they should stand up to the school administration.”

The consumer protection agency is tasked with performing random inspections of bookstores and publishers to make sure they adhere to the price set by the union.

“This year it turns out that a very small minority of publishers did not adhere to the prices fixed by the union and the ministry and they did have to pay fines,” Saad says. “Such an issue could even reach the attorney general.”

Saad insists that the price of textbooks has not been changed since 2010. He reveals that this year, the union sent a letter to the Ministry of Economics asking for permission to raise prices according to inflation, but after intense negotiations they failed to come to an agreement.

“We could not agree on a percentage that was fair to the publisher. Therefore, the union took the decision not to increase it even by a cent,” Saad says.

Saad confirms that the cost of production only accounts for 25 percent of the price, but explains that an additional 20 percent is given away in discounts to schools and bookshops, between 15-20 percent goes on authors’ royalties and 5 percent goes on wastage (free samples given to schools before they decide to buy). This leaves the publisher with 30 percent gross profit margin, from which it must pay out employees’ salaries, rent for warehouses and other expenses.

“The percentage is not fair,” Saad says. “We only sell our goods once a year.”

Free School Textbooks...for Lebanese Only

The exclusion of non-Lebanese students from a program distributing free schoolbooks has provoked a number of groups and organizations to take action.

The Union of Democratic Palestinian Youth could not justify telling Palestinian students to buy their books while free books are going to be distributed to Lebanese students.

The union has called on the education ministry to “retract its mistake and examine closely a damaging and discriminatory decision that hurts the feelings of Palestinian children.”

The education office of the Popular Nasserist Organization (PNO) described the decision not to give Palestinian students free schoolbooks as a form of “racial discrimination by the education sector in Lebanon.”

Education minister Hassan Diab defended the decision in an interview with Al-Akhbar.

He said that the decision to cover the cost of schoolbooks for students from kindergarten till the last year of middle school by the Lebanese treasury was based on law no. 211 issued in 2012 (Free Education), which applies to Lebanese students only.

Twenty-four thousand Lebanese students will benefit from a government program to support the poorest families, after official studies classified close to 14,000 Lebanese families as living below the poverty line.

These students now have the right to attend public schools for free and benefit from programs that contribute to paying for books and registration fees at a cost of $5 million, paid by the government.

The number of non-Lebanese students in public schools is expected to increase from 30,000 to 50,000 by the end of the registration period, which ends on September 10.

Books for non-Lebanese students would cost $1.5 million.

The education minister sent a letter to the cabinet asking it to consider also providing for non-Lebanese students and he is still waiting for an answer.

Is worth noting that Syrian refugees’ education costs are being covered by civil society and international aid organizations.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.


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