BEIRUT: The education minister said Tuesday that official school exams would be held on time as long as the public sector salary hike is passed before they begin, urging lawmakers to treat the risk of disruption with the “utmost importance.”
“After the failure to hold a Parliament session today, I would like to say that the official exams are still on for their set dates,” Elias Bou Saab said at a news conference at the Education Ministry.
However, he added that the matter remained dependent on the decision of the Union Coordination Committee, which most public sector teachers are part of. The UCC has threatened to boycott the whole process if they have not received positive indications by the start of the first exam – on June 7 – that the much-debated salary scale will be passed at the next opportunity.
“Therefore I appeal to all parliamentary blocs to give utmost importance to the scale,” Bou Saab said, “because if it is not approved and if the UCC does not go back on its stance, the country will enter a crisis.”
He said he believed there was time before June 7 “to find a solution to this crisis.”
At the moment, Grade 9 exams will begin June 7 and end June 11. Grade 12 General Sciences and Life Sciences exams begin June 13 and the Sociology and Economics along with Humanities and Literature June 20. Both finish June 25.
Bou Saab called the news conference to discuss the exam situation following the lack of a Parliament session Tuesday after March 14 MPs and lawmakers from the Change and Reform bloc failed to attend, preventing a quorum from being achieved and thus dashing the last chance to put an end to years of discussion over the pay hike before the exams begin.
Speaker Nabih Berri was last week forced to adjourn a debate on the issue due to ongoing lack of consensus, even as thousands of public school teachers and civil servants rallied in Beirut to urge lawmakers to pass the bill. He adjourned Tuesday’s abortive session until June 10.
The boycotting MPs said they would only attend parliamentary sessions regarding matters of high interest, prompting Bou Saab to urge all blocs to consider the salary scale a matter of “national interest” in light of the possible consequences on schools.
“When I took over the ministry I said I would stand by the rights of teachers. Today, as education minister, I stand by the rights of students and their parents too,” he said, adding: “We will not accept the Lebanese people being taken hostage in this matter.”
Bou Saab also commented on the ongoing controversy at the Lebanese University, saying that he supported the devolution of powers from the government to the state institution’s council.
He said the university, where a two-day strike by professors began Tuesday over the government’s failure to upgrade the status of contract professors to full-time and the lack of properly appointed deans, was a “national one, par excellence.”
Acting deans have been serving on the council since 2004, preventing the body from being able to make many decisions and giving authority instead to the LU president and the education minister. The Cabinet failed to approve the appointment of deans at the university in its session last week. Bou Saab has called for the council to be given the right to make its own decisions.
According to him, the process has been delayed because the government has been trying to create a sectarian balance across its appointments.
“Unfortunately, the Cabinet looks toward choosing deans according to their sects and the politicians that stand behind them,” Bou Saab said.
Prime Minister Tammam Salam held a meeting Tuesday at the Grand Serail with members of the executive committee of the League of LU Professors to discuss the same issue.
According to League chairman Hamid Hakam, the delegation pointed out that the “big problem” the university was suffering from was the absence of an effective council, of which formally appointed deans would form a crucial part.
Hakam said Salam expressed his support for the strengthening of the council. The committee is scheduled to meet with Bou Saab soon as well.
Another problem plaguing LU is the contract professors issue. Unlike permanent staff, contract professors’ salaries are paid once every two years and those receiving them do not have the right to enroll in the National Social Security Fund. The professors in question hold doctorates and have been teaching at LU for years.
Environment Minister Mohammad Machnouk stressed in a statement Tuesday that the politicization of the contract professors issue was unacceptable.
Bou Saab said members of the Cabinet had initially found a compromise on both issues, but that an official, whose name he withheld, had scuppered talks at the last second during last week’s session.
He said the topic would top the agenda at the next Cabinet meeting, the date of which has yet to be set.