Feature: Financial Crisis in Palestinian Universities

The past several weeks have seen intense turmoil and hostility on university campuses throughout the West Bank. The fall semester got off to a fairly smooth beginning, a rarity in Palestinian universities over the years. However, just after the start of the second week, employees at Birzeit University called a strike, suspending all classes until further notice. The reason: they had not been paid their wages for the month of October. Only a week later, students received the bleak news that there was to be a rise in tuition. They too protested, refusing to attend classes, sit exams or use university facilities such as the cafeteria until the tuition rise was cancelled.

The financial crisis in Palestinian universities is not new. Most universities in the West Bank were established by funding which came indirectly from the PLO through a committee called the Joint Palestinian-Jordanian Committee. Money from the organization which would not have been allowed to enter the territories under the Israeli occupation was disguised by this committee, which collected funds from wealthy Arab and Palestinian individuals and organizations abroad. The European Union also contributed substantially to the establishment and maintenance of Palestinian universities by donating millions of dollars annually.

However, after the inception of the Palestinian Authority, money which had been previously granted directly to the universities was now given to the PA, who then distributed it between its many institutions. According to a World Bank report issued last month, Palestinian higher education is in dire straits due to the cutbacks made by donor countries. The EU has announced a cut of $US8.5 million dollars in its annual contribution, leaving universities, according to their administrations, with a horrendous budget deficit of US$15 million.

The EU, which had only promised to renew its donor pledge for one five-year period, has now refused to donate money to the university budgets alone. One reason for this is that the Europeans argue that Palestinian universities will not become self-sufficient if they remain dependent on outside funding. The EU has therefore announced a gradual decrease in funding donations. And any money they do donate is given to the PA.

Unfortunately, the PA has not been allotting, or does not have the means to allot, an ample amount of funding to universities. Some universities have claimed that the PA has decreased their allocated budgets because of the ecnomic crisis. One professor of accounting at Birzeit University claims that the PA has made a cutback in the university's stipend by a total of nine percent (decreasing it from 23 percent to 14 percent).

However, that is not a sufficient justification for employees who have not received their paycheck for the month of October. Birzeit University president Dr. Hanna Nasir claims the university is in desperate need of funding, especially in light of the EU decision to halt all financial aid as of next year. His proposed solution is to pay his staff half their salaries in the middle of the month and the remainder at the end.

But teachers aren't buying it. According to one Birzeit professor, they are treated like "factory workers", while another described the relationship as one of "exploitation". However, staff members are concerned about their students' education and decided to resume classes, finding other ways of protesting against the administration. Things are still shaky, though, and employees are growing impatient.

For students, justifications for the tuition rise are apparently insufficient as well. The Ministry of Higher Education has proposed a rise in tuition fees of JD3 (US$4.8) per credit hour for new students and JD1(US$1.6) for returning students.

In protests against the decision, angry students shouted slogans against minister of higher education Hanan Ashrawi, claiming that the PA wants to turn Palestinian universities into elite education institutions for a small minority of wealthy Palestinians. Students insist that they have the right to an education without paying high tuition fees and that they have already paid enough.

Student councils have unified their stance on the crisis and have devised a number of protest tactics. Protests initially began with the customary class suspension known all too well to Palestinian university students. Although the student bodies are still partially utilizing this form of protest (students are now striking for only a few hours every day), due to the gravity and possible duration of the crisis, less harmful methods are being considered.

Student councils have organized sit-ins in front of the Ministry of Higher Education to protest its decision to raise tuition, and their presidents have held brainstorming sessions with the minister to try and solve the problem. According to the president of Bethlehem University student council, Yasser Qous, Palestinian students are not against the ministry, the PA or Yasser Arafat. Their unified stance is union-oriented and aims at preserving the right of Palestinian students in light of the difficult financial situation. The average Palestinian cannot afford to pay the proposed tuition fees which means that not all those who want to get an education will be able to afford it.

Students have proposed alternative solutions to raising tuition fees to the ministry, such as establishing university-based offices (such as engineering offices) in which the students train and get paid a minimal wage while the university benefits from the bulk of the profits. Qous insists that students are willing to help in solving the financial crisis. However, he says, "the solution should not be at the expense of our education." Student councils have said they will appeal to all concerned parties who might be able to help, such as the Legislative Council, the media and President Araf at himself.

Arafat has recently taken an interest in the situation and has promised to become personally involved in order to help the students. Negotiations are ongoing between the heads of student councils and the ministry to find a way to defuse the situation. Students are hoping for Arafat's personal intervention which, they believe, may be the only way out of the crisis.

The Ministry of Higher Education says it cannot but raise tuition. The financial crisis, a long time brewing, has peaked. Without the help of the EU and other donor countries, the PA has been left with a gaping deficit, of which the raise in tuition will only cover approximately 18 percent. The decision to hike fees came after months of intense discussions and meetings with the presidents of student bodies and the establishment of an emergency fund.

However, the PA and the universities are facing a difficult and bleak situation. Professors and staff cannot be asked to wait for their salaries; neither can needy students be asked to pay high tuition fees. At the same time, the PA is faced with the fact that they are in desperate need of money if they are going to run a country.