Students in Lebanon have taken two top universities to court over their decision to adopt a new dollar exchange rate to price tuition. The move resulted in a major increase in what tuition costs and jeopardized the education of many who no longer can afford to complete their degrees.
The controversy was triggered earlier this year when the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University decided to price tuition based on an exchange rate of 3,900 Lebanese pounds to the dollar. The nose-diving currency is still officially pegged at 1,500 per dollar but in late July it cost more than 23,000 pounds to buy one dollar on the black market due to Lebanon’s worst economic and financial crisis ever. (See a related article, “Lebanon’s Double Crisis Crushes Both Students and Universities.”)
The students filed lawsuits when the university threatened to deregister them for failing to settle their fees at the increased rate. Many have made the payments to a notary public according to the original rate, but the bid was rejected by the universities.
“We are protesting against the university’s unilateral decision to raise the tuition without prior consultation with the student council,” said Rami Shayya, an architecture student and a member of the Secular Club at the Lebanese American University.
“Students who are already enrolled in the university are the most affected as many have a limited budget for their higher education, but were faced with a significant rise in tuition which they cannot afford,” Shayya said. “We asked the university administration to participate in such crucial decisions and want to know on what basis or criteria the switch in the exchange rate was decided.”
Education Is a Right, Students Say
Students at the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University have in the meantime engaged in a series of protests and public campaigns to uphold their right for proper and affordable education.
“Education is a basic human right and educational establishments should not be used as lucrative means of income. In addition to the management, the institution includes students, faculty and staff who should all be involved in key decisions,” Shayya added.
“Education is a basic human right and educational establishments should not be used as lucrative means of income. In addition to the management, the institution includes students, faculty and staff who should all be involved in key decisions.”Rami Shayya
An architecture student at the Lebanese American University
Going to court was the last resort after attempts to reach an agreement with the universities’ management had failed, Shayya said.
In February, the students won one of two lawsuits they have filed, barring the universities from taking punitive measures such as preventing them from attending classes or forcing them to drop out.
A court hearing that was scheduled for July 15 to rule on whether universities should accept the payments made via the notary public was postponed due to a strike by Bar Association lawyers to protest the arrest of one of their colleagues.
“We hope the verdict will come out soon and will be fair to both parties,” Shayya said. “Students who have spent years studying hard to gain an education should be able to complete their degrees.”
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Both the American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University have so far refrained from issuing the diplomas of graduating students who have not completed the payments at the new exchange rate.
Universities Also Struggle
Universities across Lebanon have struggled to adapt to the de facto devaluation of the currency as prices nationwide have soared. (See a related article, “For Many Universities in Lebanon, Survival May Be at Stake.”) Commercial banks halted dollar transactions and restricted withdrawals of Lebanese pounds, in moves that have starved many people of their savings. According to the United Nations, more than half of Lebanon’s population is now living in poverty.
In comments made to Al-Fanar Media, administrators at the Lebanese American University said the university was compelled to adjust its tuition fees to preserve its financial sustainability and to maintain its high standards of education. They stressed that tuition fees are the primary resource of revenue for the university to continue its academic mission.
“We tried to open a channel of negotiations through the student council but it did not work because [administrators] weren’t willing to negotiate.”Jad Hani
An economics student at AUB.
The university said it increased its financial-aid budget from $50 million to $80 million, providing financial assistance to 75 percent of its students. Students were also invited to request aid or petition for increased assistance.
The university said it sought an amicable settlement with the students who filed lawsuits, but to no avail.
“Consequently, the university was compelled to call off the amicable discussions and requested that the court issue a judgment in the cases,” the management said. “LAU has been left with no choice but to henceforth firmly enforce its applicable rules and regulations in order to preserve its financial sustainability and its ability to survive.”
At the American University of Beirut, students said they were threatened with being disenrolled until payments are settled.
“We tried to open a channel of negotiations through the student council, but it did not work because they [administrators] weren’t willing to negotiate,” said Jad Hani, an economics student at AUB. “Instead, they threatened to drop us out if the deadline for payment is not met.”
“We do understand that the university needs to adjust to the economic crisis in order to sustain its operations. But AUB and LAU are the most highly-funded universities in terms of endowments and grants and they are the only ones in Lebanon which have raised their tuition. That does not make sense.”
“We hope to reach a fair settlement and rely on the judiciary to protect and defend our rights,” Hani added.
Administrators at the American University of Beirut had not responded to a request for comment at the time of this article’s publication.