The American University of Beirut (AUB) is in many ways a great institution. A private, non-sectarian university founded in 1866, it ranks 250th in the world according to the QS World Ranking and is one of the top universities in the region. It is renowned for continuously graduating some of the most qualified talents in the Middle East, and is the alma mater of several of the region’s top politicians, architects, businessmen and doctors. With a number of different merit, scholarship, financial aid and work-study programs, students from different socioeconomic backgrounds have traditionally been given the opportunity to hone their talents there. But as of late, these opportunities have become harder to come by.
This is because, three weeks prior to the Autumn 2013 semester, the management announced an unjustified 6 percent increase in tuition fees. This was not an isolated incident. In fact, since the university imposed a new 15-credit system in 2010, fees have risen 37 percent for many courses. Tuition fees now typically range between $8,000 and $10,000 per semester, despite an average starting salary of $800 for many fresh graduates. This has gone alongside a dismal lack of transparency, a complete failure to involve students in the decision-making process and worsening services. Students feel targeted by the administration, and trust has been lost.
Since plans for the increase were announced, students have been fighting back. Following cries of disapproval from the student body, a committee made up of representatives of different student clubs and societies was established to look for solutions.
After this year’s student elections, the newly elected University Student Faculty Committee (USFC) created a Tuition Increase Committee (TIC). Within a month, the TIC revealed a number of perceived inefficiencies in the system, presented them to management and raised a number of questions. The student body was appalled with the findings and a number of independent activists decided to readopt the previous year’s Stop the Tuition Fee Increase (STFI) movement. This committee aims to mobilize the students on campus to further voice their demands and build pressure on the administration as well as AUB’s Board of Trustees.
The administration’s justification for the increases has been far from convincing. There are clear inefficiencies in the system and the students are being asked to pay the price. The administration argues that an increase is necessary to ensure academic enhancement through programs and buildings but this should not be at the expense of students. At the end of the day, students are what make or break a university, not its buildings and programs. This is not just students that believe this, the university’s own Dean has backed the campaign.
The TIC believes that certain projects should be put on hold until additional capital is raised from sources other than tuition. The administration argues there were unforeseen costs in the form of taxes, but those could be paid from the university’s considerable reserves. Questions are also being raised about the mismanagement of funds, with multiple bodies appearing to do the same job and concerns over the university’s new $7 million IT support system. In that particular case, the hired company was allegedly directly contracted for unknown reasons, instead of going through the normal bidding process.
The university has argued that these fees are necessary but they will protect poorer students. This is simply untrue. The supposed increase in financial aid (FAID) does not match the increase in tuition fees; some students receiving 40 percent financial aid currently pay more than students receiving 20 percent financial aid five years ago. FAID has switched from a 40:60 ratio (40 percent tuition fees, 60 percent grants and gifts) to a 60:40 ratio. Despite the planned increase, FAID may actually decrease next year.
And the fact is, thousands of students are barely getting by as is. Some don’t eat all day because they can’t afford it, while others work long hours in part-time jobs to cover their expenses. Many simply cannot afford another increase and would have to change universities should it go through.
For a university that allegedly thrives on diversity, a huge number of deserving students are being marginalized. The feeling that most students have nowadays is that unless you have money growing in your backyard, the future is bleak.
Through protests, petitions and a strike, students feel they have done all they can to voice their point of view. If no compromise is reached, they promise to raise the stakes.
Executive asked the American University of Beirut to write a counter argument explaining their reasons for the tuition increase but they declined.