In Jordan, Students Say University Freedom is Moving Backwards
AMMAN— Zakaria Nofal, a student at Zarqa Private University, never thought he would be suspended for an entire academic year for participating in a student protest calling for better services at the university’s campus.
Nofal was one of three students who were suspended by the university’s disciplinary council, which he says made its decision without any investigations. This step reminded him and other students of previous arbitrary measures taken in Jordanian universities before the Arab Spring protests at the beginning of 2011, which increased freedom in the country and throughout the universities. But the last year has seen growing restrictions in academic political activity. “I didn’t participate in the student sit-ins,” said Zakaria, who was studying Arabic. “All I did was convey the demands of students to the dean of student affairs, who did not ask me [any questions about what I was doing]. . . They were convinced that my relaying the students’ demands was sufficient reason to suspend me for four semesters, which were later reduced to two.”
Hamza Al-Faraena, Zakaria’s colleague who was also suspended from the university, said he was informed that the disciplinary council wanted to question him about the protest. “I went to the committee,” he said, “and asked them to postpone it to the following day because I had to sit for my exams, and they agreed. I returned the next day to find out that the committee had already taken the decision to suspend me.”
The suspension of students from the Zarqa Private University, which lies 20 kilometers northeast of Amman, was not the only incident of academic-freedom restrictions.
In another incident, Al-Yarmouk University, also outside of Amman, suspended Heba Abo Taha for two semesters because she distributed a pamphlet calling for a reduction in university tuition.
“Lately, more restrictions have been imposed on students’ activities inside the universities,” said Faras Al-Kasas, a member of Arab Tajdeed Kotla, a student-rights organization which works inside Jordanian universities. The universities, he said, have been “imposing severe penalties on whoever raised his or her voice in objection to any situation, just as it used to be in the past.”
According to Al-Kasas, “Students are not allowed to practice politics, and the mere distribution of posters to object to the ever-increasing tuition may be enough to get a student suspended.”
Some Jordanian universities require prior consent for holding any activity inside the university. But political activities, especially those related to regional politics such as the Palestinian issue, are usually rejected. Students who insist on pursuing such activities tend to hold them without getting permission, exposing themselves to the risk of suspension.
University administrators say that students can practice their political activities through elected student unions, but union officials say their organizations cannot be conduits for all political expression. Omar Mansour, former president of the Jordanian Universities Association student union, said “We did not get enough support or freedom from the university to effectively practice our work.” Mansour tried to start a campaign to defend students’ rights within the Jordanian University Students’ Union last year. “We started to draft its policies and implement them inside and outside the university. But we were faced with severe objections from the university to the idea, which was then cancelled,” he said.
Some students complain of political discrimination.
“At the time when the university was restricting our political activities, it was allowing students who supported the government to practice their political rights,” said Badeea Al-Khateeb, a former member of the Jordanian University Students’ Union, who has an Islamist background. “Political activities are permissible only for those students whose ideas are compatible with the regime,” he added.
Fakher Daas, the coordinator of the National Campaign for Defending Students Rights, a student movement established in 2007, believes that the reason behind restrictions on students’ activities inside universities is the security and political situation in the country. The country has used participation in the war against the Islamic State as a reason to take severe disciplinary measures against students who are politically active, some students believe. “The inaccurate legal wording in the laws of the universities’ disciplinary councils allowed some universities to take arbitrary measures against students,” he said, adding that the disciplinary councils are not being monitored. “In some universities, university presidents have the right to take decisions against students without any investigations,” he said. “We have also seen incidents where disciplinary councils have taken measures not provided for in the laws of these councils, which indicates more repression.”
Moussa Bany Khaled, dean of student affairs for Al-Biet University, in Al-Mafreq, admits that the laws of the disciplinary councils need to be changed, since they no longer conform to the changes in students’ behaviors and attitudes.
“Penalties issued by the disciplinary councils need review, and they have to be limited to these councils, and no university president should have the right to take a disciplinary measure without opening an investigation,” he said. “They have become a main source of repression for students’ rights either directly or indirectly.”
Bany Khaled suggests forming an independent committee to review decisions taken by the disciplinary councils, in order to block arbitrary decisions. Daas suggest that this committee be affiliated with the Ministry of Higher Education.
The Ministry of Higher Education says that the laws of the disciplinary councils and their decisions are “internal matters” that do not lie under its jurisdiction, according to the Ministry’s secretary general, Hany Al-Damour.
“Disciplinary councils and their laws are drafted by the universities and are internal matters and ways of correcting students’ misbehaviors,” Al-Damour said. “But students have the right to challenge these councils’ decisions internally.”
Students can resort to federal administrative courts to challenge the decisions of the universities’ disciplinary councils. But an administrative court is a difficult route to take for Jordanians. The administrative court fees are high; they require hiring a lawyer with at least five years of experience, and the courts are only available in Amman.
Nofal will go back to university next semester, after losing a whole academic year. He still believes that he did nothing wrong. “I only asked for justice. I wanted better services commensurate with the tuition we pay. When I go back to university, I will still ask for my rights and the rights of my colleagues,” he said.