Sarah Abu Saymeh isn’t sure that her studies are worth the financial hole that she’s digging for herself.
“Every beginning of every semester, I start thinking about leaving the college,” said Abu Saymeh, a second-year biology student at Al-Quds Bard College in East Jerusalem. “So far, my debt is about 1500 JOD [US$2,100.] I don’t know how much debt my studying will incur.”
Palestine has 52 universities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with a total of more than 221,395 students last year, according to the ministry of education and higher education.
The cost of attending each Palestinian university varies. Expenses also differ according to the discipline the student is studying. But many Palestinian students complain that their university expenses have risen above what they can afford.
Students at Birzeit University near Ramallah were on a strike for a month, through late September, to protest rising university tuition and fees. After forcing administrators to close the school, the strike ended after officials agreed to limit the increase in the hourly course fees to 2 JOD ($3) for current students and twice as much for new students.
Students said they protested because they felt that educators didn’t care about their plight.
“I cannot forget what one of the professors told me when I told him that I was unable to pay my university fees,” said a third-year Birzeit Universty finance student who asked to remain anonymous due to his strike participation. “The professor said, ‘This is not my problem. It is yours. Leave my office. I have other work to do.’”
The Birzeit protest resembled a wave of public worker strikes against the high cost of living that hit Palestine in 2011. That demonstration paralyzed Palestinian life for a month, especially at schools and universities.
Many Palestinians’ sympathies are with the Birzeit students.
Mouneer Nimer, a public school teacher of mathematics, is looking for an extra job to pay his daughter’s expenses at Polytechnic University, where she is studying computer science, and for his son studying nursing at Hebron University.
“Life is very expensive,” said Nimer. “I cannot provide my family with all their needs as I spend about 1,700 JOD [$2,400] for my sons’ expenses every semester out of my 500 JOD [$700] salary.”
High costs are putting the brakes on Palestine’s already slow economic recovery from the 50-Day War in Gaza in 2014. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees estimates that around 18,000 homes have yet to be rebuilt since that conflict, and the ongoing violence associated with Jewish settlements in the West Bank is also an economic drag. Donor aid to Palestine has been decreasing. “At the current pace of recovery, Gaza’s economy is not expected to rebound to its pre-war level until 2018,” said a World Bank report.
Unemployment in Palestine stands at 26 percent, while youth unemployment is around 40 percent, according to the Palestine News Agency. In Gaza, the jobless rate is 41 percent because of the destruction caused by the 2014 war.
After serving a four-year sentence in an Israeli jail for belonging to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, an alleged terror group, Abed Al-Rahman Mohammed enrolled in Al-Quds to study nursing.
“When I was released and started looking for a suitable university to study nursing, I was shocked at the high expenses at universities,” said the first-year student.
He’s now considering working to cover his bills but that could also require him to postpone graduation.
The dean of students at Al Quds University, Abd-ulrauf Sinnawi, defended the Palestinian higher education system, saying his university’s student aid office is working overtime to help students like Mohammed. The university surveys students to determine how best to distribute aid, he added.
“The unit works in a very objective way and with clear conditions in which the student has to be a regular student, and his or her GPA [grade point average] is not less than 70 percent,” Sinnawi said, adding that around 2,000 students received financial aid every semester even though the university was suffering from a budget deficit.
But Mohammed said the aid was unfairly given out based on students’ political, family and business connections. “Favoritism is the main element that controls the aid,” Mohammed said.
The education ministry provides several scholarships and funds to the students, said Shadi Al-Helw, general director of grants and student services in the ministry.
“The ministry helps students as much as it can by providing two main scholarships to students based on their grades,” Al-Helw said, referring to the President’s Scholarship and the Council of the Ministry of Higher Education Scholarship.
The ministry also provides 2 million student loans that cover two semesters worth of study, he added.
Sinnawi said he regretted the financial struggle of students. But he said the problem was widespread through Palestine’s devastated economy.
“The universities are trying to keep expenses as they are, but the cost of living is increasing steadily and rapidly,” he said. “That doesn’t affect the students’ lives only. It affects everyone’s life.”