AMMAN- Armed clashes based on tribal affiliations have erupted between university students this year and have claimed five lives so far. The conflicts threaten the country’s efforts to build a unified system of higher education and are making some students leave the country.
“Violence is not new to our universities,” said Safaa Shweihat, a national education professor at German Jordanian University in Amman, who has conducted research on student violence. “Violence has escalated over the years because it has not been taken seriously.” But some university administrators say that tribal violence on campus has been exaggerated by the media.
Like most universities the world over, Jordanian campuses are quieter in the summer. But violence at the universities is continuing. Mutah University Council is still considering the possibility of canceling the university’s summer semester, even after the council expelled 16 students for being involved in clashes.
The conflicts are making some students think about leaving Jordan in the fall. “My parents did not allow me to register in the summer semester,” said Alaa, a student in hotel management at the Hashemite University. “Now, we are looking at the possibility of completing my studies abroad,” he added.
A series of conflicts earlier in the year set the stage for later problems. On March 31, a conflict between two students in Mutah University, located in Karak, about 120 kilometers south of Amman, turned into a fight with Molotov cocktails after armed men from the students’ tribes arrived. The clashes ended with the death of a student in the faculty of engineering, who suffocated from tear gas that security forces threw to split up the fighting parties. Classes were suspended and a period of mourning was declared. The brawl was solved through a temporary tribal truce. Police charged a person whose identity was not revealed with starting the fight, so as to avoid the appearance of taking sides.
On April 29, a normal university day turned into an open battle in Al-Hussein Bin Talal University in Maan, 216 kilometers south of Amman. Tribal supporters of students poured onto campus with stones, knives, dagger, sticks and automatic weapons. Four people, including a professor, died, and the university closed its doors for a month.
Violence is highest at Jordan’s nine public universities, particularly outside of Amman, in the south. There, tribes are the strongest reference for identity that many students have outside of their immediate families. Moreover, the tribal tensions spill over into student elections.
Safaa Shweihat, at German Jordanian University, sent a questionnaire about the violence to 2,100 students in 2008. She found that more than 10 percent of the country’s university students are involved. “We should not bury our head in the sand anymore,” she said.
Unofficial statistics recorded over 50 university clashes between January and the end of April, according to the National Campaign for Defending Students’ Rights (Thabahtoona), a student-run group that monitors all university policies related to student life. The incidents in the report cited as major brawls were related to tribal affiliations and marked by the participation of a large number of students and damage to university property.
But the University of Jordan president, Khleif Tarawneh says university violence is not a serious problem. “It is just reckless behavior,” Tarawneh said at a symposium held in Amman last month to discuss ways to rescue education from its problems in the Kingdom. He says only 700 students out of tens of thousands have participated in riots. Tarawneh said his university has adopted a new plan that seeks to prevent violence on campus in part by increasing the number of security guards.
The Higher Education Council in Jordan, a federal government body, also put into place a plan on May 30 to prevent university violence. The council’s investigations revealed the weakness of university security guards and the inexperience of student affairs’ staff in dealing with the student conflicts. The council is encouraging better training of staff members and the creation of more-secure campuses with plenty of camera surveillance. Employment opportunities after graduation will be linked to behavior on campus. In the long term, the plan calls to create awareness based on dialogue in universities and reconsidering university legislation. Also the plan suggested simply making sure the rule of law is enforced and sanctions taken against those who start violence.
A former higher education minister, Walid Maani, who served as minister of both education and higher education from February 2009 until February 2011, believes that violence in universities has a connection with what is going on in the rest of Jordanian society. “One cannot separate violence in the universities from that in society at large,” Maani wrote earlier this month on an online magazine. The parliament itself had recently witnessed an incident involving some tribal legislators where one tried to pull a gun on his opponents. “The general public mood and the economic hardships felt by many has led to ugly behavior that culminated in the destruction of public property, including that of universities,” Maani wrote.
According to the report of the students’ rights group, 90 percent of the fights included vandalism of university property, which indicates that students do not have a sense of belonging to their universities. “Such behavior makes one wonder whether these students feel they belong to the country at all, or just to a minority in their tribe,” says Amer Al-qadi, a student working for a master’s degree in education. He blames Jordanian admissions policies, which grants exemptions and has quotas for the underprivileged, children of army members, and children of staff and employees.
“All the violence that took place in public universities has been ignited by students who have been accepted exceptionally.” He expressed a popular sentiment: Many commentators have said that students with tribal connections admitted under exemptions appear to feel that they are protected from sanctions no matter how bad their behavior. Others say that this analysis is too simplistic and that blaming the violence on exemptions reveals only social prejudice.
Thabahtoona’s statistics indicate that 90 percent of university conflicts start in social science departments, where students tend to come from public secondary schools with poorer educational standards, since admissions requirements are lower for those departments.
A report on Jordanian universities by the Al-Hayat Center for Civil Society Development found that security and political challenges were the “biggest hurdle” facing students defending human rights.
Additionally, violence could force thousands of international students to leave Jordanian universities. The Saudi Cultural Attache in Jordan has recently transferred Saudi scholarships to other countries in light of the recent violence. According to the reports published recently in Jordanian media outlets, the attache oversees 2,500 Saudi students and about 2,300 students studying at their own expense.
“The problem can’t be solved without recognizing its real reason,” Shweihat said stressing that the lacking of cultural dialogue is the main reason. “Our students need to learn how to express themselves in a right way and how to talk and discuss with each other’s culture. We need to teach dialogue skills.”