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Safa Nassereldin, of Al-Quds University, Says Lack of Funding Threatens Education Continuity 

Al-Quds University, the only Arab university in occupied East Jerusalem, is facing a financial crisis due to high operational costs and a decline in foreign grants and financial aid, says Safa Nassereldin, the institution’s presidential secretary general.

This has left the university struggling to secure alternative sources of funding, to avoid harming financially vulnerable students or having to shut its doors altogether, she said.

Lack of funding is the main problem facing most of Palestine’s universities, Nassereldin said in an interview with Al-Fanar Media via Zoom. Educational and operational costs on campuses are continuously rising, and thousands of students are unable to pay tuition fees due to worsening economic conditions in Palestine.

University education in Palestine is not free, Nassereldin said. This adds to the burden on large sectors of families who are unable to pay their children’s tuition fees. Educational institutions usually try to address this by seeking to secure alternative funding sources, to prevent the dismissal of financially unable students, she said.

Coping with the Financial Crisis

Al-Quds University has several campuses in and around Jerusalem: the Old City campus, Sheikh Jarrah campus, and the Beit Hanina campus. Its main campus is located in Abu Dis, east of Jerusalem and cut off from the city by the Israeli separation wall.

“The university has avoided dismissing any student who has failed to pay tuition fees, even though tuition is the main resource for our budget.”

Safa Nassereldin, Presidential Secretary-General of Al-Quds University

The university has 15 degree-granting colleges, including schools of medicine, dentistry, pharmacy, engineering, law, and arts and humanities. It currently enrols about 12,000 students in 55 undergraduate programmes and 45 graduate programmes.

Nassereldin was appointed to her present position last year after serving for seven years as the university’s vice president for Jerusalem affairs. She is also an expert on information and communications technology and has previously served Palestine’s minister of telecommunications and information technology.

Because of the financial crisis, the university’s professors are receiving only 80 percent of their salaries, Nassereldin told Al-Fanar Media.

Still, the university has committed to providing financial support and scholarships to underprivileged students. “Those constitute 56 percent of our students,” she said. “The university has avoided dismissing any student who has failed to pay tuition fees, even though tuition is the main resource for our budget.”

The university has annual expenses of about $4.7 million, and the total of aid and grants it receives covers only about a quarter of that, said Nassereldin.

Among its attempts to maximise opportunities for obtaining financial aid from foreign and Arab countries, Nassereldin said the university had obtained a fatwa permitting individuals to pay their zakat (religious alms) to universities to support the education of underprivileged students.

In another attempt to overcome financial obstacles, the university decided three years ago to cut expenses by reducing the number of administrative staff and stopping scholarships, while expanding the establishment of business incubators for students, in cooperation with the private sector, Nassereldin said.

The Impact of Israeli Restrictions

Finances are not the university’s only difficulties, Nassereldin said. It also faces obstacles to developing the educational process as a result of Israeli policies that prevent its teaching staff from traveling abroad and restrict recognition of its degrees. This puts more difficulties on the shoulders of graduates looking for work, she said.

After a long court dispute, Nassereldin said, the university extracted recognition from the Israeli government’s ministries of health and education to accept the credentials of graduates of the university’s faculties of medical professions. That decision, in 2014, allowed these graduates to work in Jerusalem hospitals.

Nassereldin calls for improving educational conditions in Palestinian universities and “work to enhance their independence from the Israeli occupation’s obstacles, to enable these universities to develop their curricula and support the education of their students.”

But Israeli policies still prohibit the university from from contracting professors or admitting students from outside the city of Jerusalem, she said. These restrictions deprive the university of academic talent and financial resources.

“The Israeli occupation authorities limit work at the university to Jerusalemite professors, or Arab Israelis who hold an Israeli passport,” she said. “This reduces academic diversity and limits study to certain disciplines.”

While discussing the difficulties that Al-Quds University students face today, Nassereldin recalled her own experience as a student at the university’s College of Science and Technology. “I dropped out of my education for more than three years, due to the outbreak of the first Palestinian intifada and the closure of the campus by the occupation,” she said.

Graduate Study in France

After graduating in 1994, Nassereldin worked as a teaching assistant at the university before traveling to France to complete her graduate studies. In 2003, she obtained a doctorate in electronic engineering from the National School of Electronics, Computers and Radiocommunications of Bordeaux, which is part of Bordeaux 1 University.

In addition to her academic work, Nassereldin is a member of several youth-supporting institutions in technological innovation, start-ups in Palestine, and encouraging women to study engineering and technology. She has received several awards, including being named a chevalier of the French Legion of Honor in 2017.

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Nassereldin attributes the lack of female academics in the technology and communications sector to the absence of doctoral programs in these majors in Palestinian universities, and the inability of most students to travel abroad to study. She added that companies in this field in Palestine usually prefer to employ men over women.

At the conclusion of our interview, she called for “the improvement of educational conditions in Palestinian universities, and work to enhance their independence from the Israeli occupation’s obstacles, to enable these universities to develop their curricula and support the education of their students.”

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