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Birzeit protest ends as students strike tuition deal

A heavy budget deficit — though lighter than those of other Palestinian universities — led Birzeit University to call for a tuition hike, sparking a protest movement by the student council that closed the school's gates for a month.

The Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education announced Oct. 4 that a committee of representatives from Palestinian universities has been formed to develop a higher education law to resolve problems plaguing Palestinian universities, particularly financial ones.

The announcement was made during the closing ceremony of the 22nd Muwatin Annual Conference, “Are Palestinian universities in crisis?" held by Muwatin Institute for Democracy and Human Rights in Birzeit University on Sept. 30. 

Birzeit University had been forced to close its doors by the student council protesting a tuition hike by the administration of the nongovernmental institution. Beginning Aug. 25, the university was closed for 28 days until the administration and the student council reached an agreement Sept. 22.

The university, facing a financial crunch, had decided to increase the fee per hour by two Jordanian dinars (around $3) for existing students and four dinars (around $6) for new students.

Following the agreement, the university reopened its gates and students suspended a hunger strike they began Sept. 19. Although the council had asserted since the beginning of the protest that it would not drop its demands that the fee hike be canceled, it ended up agreeing to an increase of two dinars per hour for new students. The university agreed not to raise the fees again for four years.

According to the head of the council, Ahmad al-Ayesh, the agreement meets 80% of the students' demands. He told Al-Monitor, “For several years now, the university administration has been increasing tuition for students to meet its financial deficit. It must now come up with creative solutions to resolve its financial crisis without dipping into the pockets of students.”

The students had closed and chained the university gate. Ayesh explained that the move was part of the students’ peaceful protest to obtain their rights and is a method used by many student movements in Arab and foreign universities.

The Birzeit University administration had issued a statement Sept. 19 insinuating that it might resort to the force of law to open the doors. In another statement Sept. 4, the administration described the protest as unbefitting Birzeit students. The statements, however, only encouraged the student council to keep pressing for its demands.

Ayesh said the crisis stems from a lack of government subsidies for higher education institutions in Palestine.

The Palestinian Ministry of Education and Higher Education once allocated part of its budget to public universities in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. But after the internal division in 2007, financial subsidies were halted for universities in the Gaza Strip and reduced for those in the West Bank. An official source told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity that the change may have been due to a shortage in the government’s budget.

He said, “Most universities in the world are subsidized by the government and a university student would pay only 20% of his tuition fees. In Palestine, students pay 60% of their tuition fees. This is in addition to the university’s lack of investment projects, which could possibly produce sufficient revenue to resolve the crisis.”

He clarified that Birzeit University is not suffering an extreme financial crisis and is still paying its staff’s full salaries on time, unlike other universities in Palestine where the staff is receiving partial salaries.

“This means that the financial crisis is not likely to lead the university to close its doors and stop its services to students, at least in the near term,” he said.

Dean of Student Affairs Mohammad al-Ahmad told Al-Monitor, “The student council’s protest against the decision to raise the tuition fees by using force and violence is uncivilized. When we said we would resort to the force of law against those closing the university gate, we were not making a threat but rather speaking of a legitimate right guaranteed by the law.”

He added, “The agreement reached is satisfactory for both parties to some extent. A committee is discussing ways to compensate for the 28 days of shutdown.”

He stressed that the financial crisis is not limited to Birzeit University as all public Palestinian universities are affected by Israel's blockade and the lack of government subsidies and foreign resources, all which have drained university budgets.

Ahmad said the crisis is a product of the universities' high operating costs and low incomes. He said, “For example, Birzeit University fixed the exchange rate of the Jordanian dinar in light of the depreciation of its value against the shekel in recent years, which increased the value of the losses incurred by the university in terms of operational requirements and staff salaries.”

He recalled that last year, the employees of the public Palestinian universities went on strike demanding higher salaries. The ensuing negotiations with the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions and the Palestinian Higher Education Council led to an agreement to increase their pay by 15%. The salary hike created a financial burden for Palestinian public universities of 2 million Jordanian dinars per year.

Ghassan Khatib, the university's vice president for development and communications, also noted that the government’s subsidies for the university dropped this year, standing at 1% down from 5% in 2015, allegedly as a result of the shrinking of the Palestinian government's budget approved by the legislative council.

Khatib told Al-Monitor that the government has only disbursed 33% of the budget allocated for higher education. He indicated that all public universities were affected by the dwindling government subsidies, each to a different extent depending on their number of students and staff. He said Birzeit's budget is 30 million dinars per year.

He denied a drop in foreign support, saying, “Foreign support is often limited and conditional, either extended for the construction of new school buildings or as grants for needy students. This support does not help to resolve the financial crisis of the university.”

Al-Monitor reached out to the Ministry of Education and Higher Education for comment, but received no statement.

Ahmad said Birzeit University partially or fully covers the tuition fees of 4,000 students through grants it receives. He said Birzeit students are only liable for 60% of their tuition, which means that they benefit from a 40% educational subsidy.

He stressed Birzeit's keenness to avoid increasing tuition unless necessary, pointing that the students must contribute to solving the university’s financial deficit amounting to 14 million dinars. He said that in addition to increasing fees for new students, the university is trying to meet the deficit with foreign financial aid as well as from local donors.

As Khatib sees it, the solution to the financial crisis is an increase in donations and a reduction of expenses through austerity measures that include refraining from hiring new staff unless absolutely necessary. He said, “These solutions are not sufficient by themselves and cannot be an alternative to an increase in tuition fees, which remain the main revenue of public universities.”

He said that the strike by the student council, which is affiliated with Hamas’ Islamist parliamentary bloc, falls within the scope of campaigning for the upcoming elections and aims to garner support and gain popularity.

He said that Shabiba, the former student council headed by Fatah's youth movement, had pulled the same stunt three years ago, protesting for three months following which an agreement was reached to cancel the decision forcing students to pay their fees according to a high dinar-shekel exchange rate that would have inflated the financial burden of the students. The agreement, however, did provide for an increase in tuition for all students by an agreed-upon percentage.

The student council, whatever its ideological inclination, will likely continue to use strikes to protest fee hikes to show students that the organization is the best body to fight for their rights.

Birzeit University did not take any legal action to prevent the closing of its doors, which obstructed the educational process and provided no solutions to its financial hardship. Will the new ministerial committee solve this crisis and make changes that will prevent similar actions in the future?

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