Staff and student strikes at Birzeit disrupt academic year: Universities and Higher Education Ministry caught in deficit trap

For the second week running, faculty and staff in Birzeit's union decided to continue a full strike, preferring to term it "abstention from work", in protest against the university administration's decision not to pay wages for the month of October, due at the beginning of November. Union members rejected the administration's offer to pay 50 percent of the amount as an interim step. For the second time in two years, the university's financial situation has forced the administration of the university to suspend salary payments to Birzeit's over 600 faculty and staff.

The roots of the current conflict are a result of severe funding losses in the wake of the Gulf War, when 95 percent of Palestinian workers were expelled by the Kuwaiti government and Arab states cut back funding in protest at the Palestinian Liberation Organisation's opposition to the 1990 military operations against Iraq. The overnight loss of 60 percent of Birzeit University's budget, estimated at around US $10 million yearly, prompted the European Union to step in to cover the shortfall. Despite no changes in the Palestinian economic situation, the EU's emergency support to Birzeit and other Palestinan universities has been gradually cut back over the last few years. Birzeit's annual deficit is currently estimated to be around US $2 million dollars.

Meanwhile, in protest at a decision by the Ministry of Higher Education to raise fees at Palestinian universities by three Jordanian dinars (JD) per credit hour for new students and one JD for existing students, student councils in all Palestinian universities have announced the a one-day strike tomorrow, on 18 November. Currently student tuition fees only cover one-third of the actual cost of their education. At Birzeit, the extra income gained by the increase is estimated to be JD 48,000 for existing students and JD 36,000 for new students, a total of around US $112,000 per semester during the first year.

Student leaders point to the declining economic conditions in the occupied territories as reason to keep the fees at the same rate. University officials cite deficit figures and point out that tuition fees in many local private schools are higher than in most universities. Earlier in the week, students demonstrated in support of faculty and staff demands, asking for their salaries to be met in order that classes could resume.

Birzeit University has announced that it will shortly be launching a major endowment appeal, called "Hope for the Future", to raise at least $30 million dollars. The appeal is intended to cover the existing deficit and ensure financial security for the university in the future.