Occupy Birzeit: Protesting High Tuition

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Palestinian students celebrate during their graduation ceremony at Birzeit University near the West Bank city of Ramallah on 5 June 2010. (Photo: AFP - Abbas Momani)

By: Charlotte Silver

Published Wednesday, January 25, 2012

After a five-day sit-in on the Birzeit University campus, the student council and administration will begin negotiations over a contentious tuition increase.

Classes for the the winter semester at Birzeit University should have been in full swing on Saturday, but the campus was empty and the gates were locked – preventing an estimated 1,300 students from attending classes.

A few days after the semester started, the administration raised the tuition fees, as they have done countless times in the past. The university is facing huge financial difficulties, says Dr. Adnan al-Yehya, the Vice President for Academic Affairs. Currently, the school’s deficit is running at four million Jordanian Dinars (nearly US$6 million).

“Given the difficult economic situation in Palestine, we cannot meet our costs,” al-Yehya explains.

In response to the hike in tuition, students called for a strike to begin at noon on January 18 and demanded that the university lower the prohibitive fees. The protest rapidly escalated, and as of Sunday evening, over 100 students were staging a sit-in on campus.

The student protests that erupted at Birzeit and spread beyond the university signalled a growing discontent among young Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and the economic conditions they face.

One evening late in the protest, a yellow cab pulled up to the chained black gates of the university. Two boys, donning kuffiyehs and dark hoodies, got out of the cab. They carried bags stuffed with blankets. Another young man met them on the other side of the gate. They tossed the blankets to him before pitching themselves over the tall wrought iron spikes.

The young men were bringing blankets to the remaining ten students who were camped out in an administrative building on campus and the over one hundred other students that sat outside the building in support of those inside. Due to the extreme cold, the numbers had dwindled from the initial 200-strong crowd, but those who remained were resolute.

Alaa Shreteh, age 22, studies Sociology at Birzeit. He told me that he cannot pay the tuition this semester: “We told the administration our needs and they didn’t agree to talk to us. They said ‘if you have money you can study, if you don’t have money, you can’t.’”

What began with fewer than 50 students protesting outside of an administrative building after refusing to negotiate with the student council, turned into Birzeit’s very own occupy movement, albeit somewhat unintentionally.

According to Najla Kayed, 21, the handful of students who initially entered the administrative buildings in protest had not planned to stage a sit-in protest. However, campus security locked them in the building from 1:00pm to 10:00pm with no heater, blankets or access to food or water. By the time they had opened the doors to the building that night, the student movement and student council had changed course: they were outraged and refused to leave.

The next day, the gates to the campus were locked. Administrators announced they would not negotiate with those occupying the campus. The occupying students were told they were allowed to leave the building but would not be allowed back in. Most students chose to remain, determined to meet with the administrators and negotiate their grievances.

Linah Alsaafin, a young Palestinian blogger and activist who recently graduated from Birzeit, explained that small demonstrations have always taken place at the beginning of semesters after the tuition is increased. Normally administrators would agree to talk to the distressed students but little would come out of the discussions, she explained.

But this time was different. After their demands were met with the highly antagonist response – locking them into a building and depriving them of food or heat in the dead of winter – the students got serious.

The Teacher’s Union offered to mediate between administrators and students, but the administration flat-out rejected the offer as long students were occupying the building.

Alsaafin said that while she studied at Birzeit, tuition fees increased every semester. The reasons for the increases are notably different and perhaps less cynical than those that beleaguer students at U.S. universities, such as the University of California, whose chancellors appear motivated by personal greed and have little interest in students’ welfare.

According to Dr. Adel Zagha, vice president for financial affairs, tuition hikes are one consequence of the Palestinian Authority’s desperate financial situation. For the past three years, the P.A. and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) have been neglecting their financial obligations to universities throughout the West Bank. As of this year they owe Birzeit an estimated 7.5 million dollars.

Dr. Zagha is aware of the dilemma. “The situation is very hard: education is costly and per capital income is very low here.”

He explained that tuition only covers 40-50 percent of the university costs, which rise every year due to an annual increase in teachers’ salaries.

“The PA is in a financial crisis, so we will have to find other resources,” said Dr. Zagha.

The financial vulnerability of the Palestinian Authority was displayed most clearly this summer, when they could only pay government employees half the amount of their salaries in June. The P.A.’s budget fell short by $500 million, with many foreign donors failing to make their expected payments. With a current debt running close to $1 billion, it appears that the P.A. has reached the limits on its borrowing capacity.

Students in the West Bank are weary of bearing the brunt of the scarcity of funds.

Following Birzeit’s lead, students at Bethlehem University began protesting the rising cost of education with a hunger strike.

It is yet to be seen what will come of the student protests in Birzeit and Bethlehem, as students and administrators will meet this week to discuss compromises and alternatives to tuition increases.

“Nothing is clear, everything is ambitious,” says Shreteh.

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