Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Rising Tuition Costs Threaten Future of a Generation of Palestinians

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Rising Tuition Costs Threaten Future of a Generation of Palestinians

Article excerpt

Outside the office of the dean of student affairs at Islamic University in Gaza, students sit on the floor, awaiting their turn. The wood-paneled hallway represents a kind of educational gauntlet, with the students trying to make headway through the financial obstacles facing them, not to mention the inevitable boredom of bureaucracy. Impatient and restless, they begin humming, then tapping their fingers. In time the rhythm escalates to chanting: "We want to register! We want to register!" Their hopes rest on the dean's approval. And so they wait.

Because the dean is busy in his office, the frustrated students meet with the deputy dean of student affairs, Dr. Ahmed Al Tourk. A student exits his office, head bowed, looking at the floor, his future uncertain. Next in line is Ola'a, a third year medical student considered one of the most promising future doctors in her class. She rises from the floor and takes a deep breath before entering the deputy dean's office. Ola'a quietly explains her dilemma: the university awarded her a partial scholarship for academic achievement which covers half her tuition-but she is unable to pay the rest.

In order to receive class credit, a student must be registered. But it's already four weeks into the academic year, and all of Ola'a's attempts to register have been thwarted. The computer won't accept her registration until she has settled the balance due on her tuition-900 Jordanian dinars, or roughly $1,272-and the credit column is cleared. But the 20-year-old medical student cannot even afford to buy her textbooks or arrange transportation to the university. Her father is unemployed and employment opportunities in Gaza are scarce. A reprieve from the dean is her last hope.

Today Ola'a is lucky. Even though she has not settled her debt, Dr. Al Tourk allows her to register temporarily through the admission and registration office.

University officials, too, are confronted with a dilemma. Should they allow students to register and thus enable them to continue their education, or should they uphold the university policy that all fees must be paid in advance? Concerns about cash flow and being able to pay teachers' salaries, purchase supplies and keep the school running also must be considered. Ultimately it comes down to a cruel choice: a school without students, or students without a school.

According to Dr. Al Tourk, the inability of students to pay their tuition is "partially due to the Israeli-imposed siege, economic hardship and unemployment." Each day he meets new students confronting increasing economic hardship, "which makes one's heart ache" he says, as he answers non-stop phone calls and meets with students and their families seeking his help.

Dr. Al Tourk admits the university does receive some financial support to defray tuition fees, but it's never enough. "I am always happy when I hear a donor is coming to the university to help the students with the most needs," he says.

In 2011, 30 percent of Islamic University students applied for student loans and financial aid. This year, according to Dr. Al Tourk, 50 percent of the school's students cannot afford the tuition. In many cases, some impoverished female students wear the same jilbab, or covering, for the entire academic year.

The financial situation has driven some students to desperation. In September, 18-year-old Ehab Abu Nada set himself on fire to protest the high academic fees and economic suffering in Gaza. …

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