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Students at Birzeit University are poised to take strike action after the University announced plans to raise tuition fees on its students – as it has continued to do in recent years.
In calculating fee levels this year, the University has said it will set an exchange rate of 5.60 shekels to 1 Jordanian dinar (JOD). The true value of the dinar is currently around 5.10 shekels, effectively meaning a real terms increase.
This indirect means of raising student tuition fees was noticed by the University’s student council, who held a meeting with the University administration three weeks ago. After a further meeting with heads of department, the University position remained unchanged – it insisted on its original proposal. The student council protested by persuading the campus bank manager to close the bank’s branch at the University last Thursday.
Omar Kittani, a computer science and engineering student going into his third year, gave us an idea of what the raise would mean for him. “When I started at Birzeit, I signed a contract with the university – my contract says 45 JOD per hour; now they want me to pay 50 JOD per hour. That’s about 1500 JOD per year, or nearly 9000 shekels a year.”
It is also alleged that fees will be doubled for changing majors, as well as increased payments required from students who perform to an inadequate standard.
The student council is currently in negotiations with the University, but strike action will commence on Monday if these break down before the end of Sunday.
Mohammed Zaid, secretary of the financial committee of the student council, is part of the direct negotiations with the University. Staying committed to the talks, he insisted, “Closure is the last resort, but the only solution if the University does not move on its position.”
Explaining the council’s stance, he said, “We are trying to reverse this decision. It’s natural to raise tuition on students but it’s not natural to raise it in this way when the University has no information on the social conditions of students – then they could take a decision based on that, but not without this information.
“Raising the tuition now is the wrong time because the economic conditions in Palestine are really bad. So it is an extra burden on students and on families – many won’t even be able to pay. This will cause further economic problems. So the timing will actually play against the University.”
As an alternative course of action, the council has demanded that the University collect financial information on every student in the University over the next year.
“The University only have ‘social status information’ on students going into the second year, and nothing on those coming into the university, who have to pay tuition as well. Relevant information can’t be collected in one week, so the decision must be reversed for now,” said Zaid. “We also need time to explain to students why we will need to be collecting information about them.”
Next week’s strike will be an open strike, with students being given the choice whether or not to pay the fees, but it will be expected to run for at least several weeks.
Omar could pay, but his case is far from the worst. “I’m telling my father not to pay, but he is trying to insist – it’s less trouble for me than others, but I don’t want to submit to this increase when other students can’t afford it at all.”
One such case is his cousin’s family. “She has three brothers already at university and one younger sister about to start university. So her father is having to pay for five children’s education. This fee increase will be a big burden. Even if you get a scholarship, you have to keep getting the highest grades in your class every semester to get your rebate.”
The average salary in Ramallah is around 2000 shekels per month. However, costs in relatively cosmopolitan Ramallah are a world away from other less economically developed places around the West Bank, like Jericho, where income is much lower. Most people are paid at the rate of 5.05 shekels to the dinar, substantially less than the parity being proposed by Birzeit.
Moreover, in many families, only the father works. Tuition can therefore add up to a third of annual family income, even before before living costs and transportation. Many Palestinian families also have many children – so having more than one child at university can leave some in arrears.
The University has been contacted for comment. It is understood to be trying to maintain its position by offering sweeteners like scholarships and other financial aid.
Fees at Birzeit University are understood to be significantly higher than for other universities in the West Bank.
The student council’s financial committee secretary informed us that Birzeit has had a pensions crisis since the term of its previous president. “Lots of the external contributions to the University are to specific buildings and things that people can put their name to – not to the running of the University.”
The University was forced to use pension funds to cover running costs, especially as cuts to the Palestinian Authority budget have had a knock-on effect on the grant Birzeit receives from government – which has been reduced from $2m in 2008 to a mere $120,000.
“Students cover 64% of the running costs; the PA pays the rest,” said Zaid. “If the PA is not paying for its obligations, why are the students having to heed theirs?”
The Palestinian Authority is facing a huge deficit, reaching $4.2bn in June. Of its annual budget, around 31% is spent on security, which outstrips the 19% spent on education.