Beirut – The prestigious American University of Beirut (AUB) in Lebanon has announced that it will more than double the cost of tuition fees in local currency, saying the move was made necessary by the spiraling economic collapse of the country.
The university will adopt an exchange rate of 3,900 Lebanese pounds to the US dollar, which will be officially detached from the official 23-year Lebanese rate of 1,500 Lebanese pounds to the dollar.
AUB President Fadlo Khuri said the university made the decision in June, but held firm in the hope that Lebanese leaders would implement reforms to unlock international aid that could stabilize the country. the country’s currency, which has lost around 80% of its value since mid-2019.
“We have delayed it as much as we can, hoping for an economic rescue of Lebanon as a country and some kind of lasting plan … it is clearly not imminent,” Khuri said. during a briefing with journalists on Monday.
The new rate reflects one of Lebanon’s three main exchange rates; a semi-official set by the central bank for commercial bank transactions.
At the official rate, the annual tuition fee of about $ 24,000 was equivalent to £ 36 million. When the new rate goes into effect this spring, it becomes 93.6 million pounds.
The minimum wage in Lebanon is only 675,000 pounds per month, or 8.1 million per year.
This makes AUB inaccessible to the vast majority of young people in a country where more than 50% are poor and casts uncertainty on the ability of thousands of students, many of whom were once considered middle class, to complete their education. in one of the best universities in the Middle East. .
Even before the tuition hike, Khuri said 250 of the university’s roughly 9,400 students discontinued their studies, while 600 new students ultimately decided not to start.
AUB expects more to leave now, but doesn’t know how many, Khuri said.
Still, he called the price hike necessary to ensure the university’s long-term survival.
“AUB is not just for students, faculty, staff or alumni or administration; it is a university that belongs to future generations, ”he said, adding that continuing at the official pace was“ totally unaffordable ”.
He said the university has set a goal of providing full scholarships to 1,000 students who otherwise could not afford it by 2025, up from 700 today (a number itself greater than 450 five years ago).
However, this will hardly offset the more painful immediate effects of rising tuition fees on the student body. AUB’s decision also fuels the growing stratification of Lebanese society between a small number of wealthy people with access to funds for a dignified life and the vast majority who struggle to meet their most basic needs.
Lama Jamaleddine, a 19-year-old psychology student, said her parents would now have to take out bank loans or borrow money from family and friends to take her through her final semester in the spring. But his plans to pursue a master’s degree at AUB will now have to change.
“We were trying to save for higher education. It blocks my chances, ”she told Al Jazeera.
Jamaleddine is the secretary of AUB’s Secular Club, an independent group that recently won the largest share of seats in student elections, defeating clubs backed by Lebanon’s sectarian ruling class.
She said secular students from 11 Lebanese universities across Lebanon would hold a meeting on December 12 to decide what action to take in response and said they could hold protests even before the meeting.
“The new prizes are just a colossal amount that many students cannot afford. Many are struggling to meet their basic needs as so many subsidies are being lifted and prices are steadily rising all over this country, ”she said.
The Lebanese central bank said it could only maintain subsidies on essentials such as wheat, fuel and medicine until January, prompting UNICEF and the International Labor Organization to put warning of “social catastrophe” in an opinion piece published Monday on the UNICEF website.
“The impact of removing the price subsidies on the country’s most vulnerable households will be enormous and yet there is almost nothing in place to help mitigate the decline,” the two agencies said.
The country’s deep financial crisis is made worse by COVID-19 and the aftermath of the massive Beirut port explosion in August, which destroyed large parts of the city, killing 200 people and injuring more than 6,000.
France has spearheaded an initiative to provide billions of dollars in aid to Lebanon, subject to the formation of a new government that implements reforms. But Prime Minister-designate Saad Hariri failed to form a government five weeks after being chosen by parliament. And if he forms a government, there is little reason to believe that the triple Prime Minister would implement the sweeping reforms that are asked of him.
Khuri said he tried to avoid Tuesday’s price hike by asking for help from donor countries, especially the United States, as well as the cash-strapped government of outgoing Prime Minister Hassan Diab – himself a former vice-president of AUB.
“We don’t think this government has supported AUB or the higher education sector,” Khuri said.
Indeed, the outgoing Prime Minister is suing AUB for around $ 1 million in end-of-service benefits which, according to him, are unfairly denied.
If conditions continue to worsen – and experts, including the World Bank, say this will be due to inaction by political and financial authorities – Khuri does not rule out a further increase in tuition fees, though he said the administration was not considering such a step now.