BEIRUT: Against the backdrop of a new fall semester at the American University of Beirut, students angered by the recent announcement of a 6 percent tuition fee hike are demanding their administrative superiors increase decision-making transparency.
The uproar began in mid-August, when student and university Student Faculty Committee Vice President Ramzi Taybah summoned a meeting to discuss the increase.
“I went straight to the USFC when I found out the tuition would be raised, which was three and a half weeks before the start of the new semester,” Taybah told The Daily Star.
“Our major issue was not knowing anything about the tuition prices being increased. This was decided way before we found out. We simply want to be part of the decision-making processes at AUB.”
On Sept. 4, the semester’s first day of classes, individual students – unaffiliated with any cause – made flyers and distributed them at AUB’s main gate and other locations.
Not too long afterward, the Facebook page “Stop the Tuition Fees Increase” was launched, almost immediately attracting 1,500 likes. At the time of going to print, that figure stood at 2,059. Although it is impossible to verify that each one is a student, that represents a significant portion of AUB’s 7,298-student population.
Before officially filing their petition – which should be done this week – a group of student activists created a committee to organize its popular movement, the same students that disrupted the opening day march of faculty and administrators with T-shirts and posters emblazoned with anti-tuition increase slogans.
The committee’s members are drawn from both politically affiliated clubs and more independent groups, such as the Red Cross and Greenpeace.
After the committee was multilaterally formed, the students, under no official hierarchical leadership, formulated their six-point petition.
The tone of the petition and its demands suggest a student body that feels marginalized and is eager to be more included in decisions that deal with budgeting, untraced revenues, financial aid, the credit system and the tuition raise itself.
Their most dramatic demand is sixth on the list: “A promise that students will no longer be the first targets of any future increase in university budgetary needs.”
“We students feel sidelined and demand more transparency,” Secular Club President Jean Kassir said.
Kassir, a student and activist who deals with the social media and data-collecting branch of the committee, fears the rising tuition fees will create a social imbalance where many students won’t be able to afford attending AUB in the future.
“We don’t want AUB to become an elitist institution. The social role of AUB in Lebanon is to spread a higher form of education for all – regardless of the applicant’s social class,” he said.
“Increasing tuitions is not the only means to improve academic level and standing. The least ... that could have been done was to alert our USFC members, who should have a say in an increased tuition fee.”
One of the USFC members who felt deceived by AUB’s decision is No Frontiers representative Emily Field. “Students only found out about the tuition increase when paying through their Web statement of fees, which in essence is complete disregard for the student since we now need to bear the brunt of such university decisions,” she said.
“The situation would be completely alleviated had the students been included. That’s the main source of discontent. The petition, which now has close to 3,000 signatories, does not only show student disillusionment but unity and cohesion between all of the groups and clubs at AUB.”
Weam Dalal, an engineering student who is also protesting the tuition increase, lamented, “AUB didn’t even bother to send us an email.”
However, the student rhetoric is at odds with the seemingly open actions of AUB President Peter Dorman, who stepped aside from colleagues to speak to student activists when going through a student-imposed walk of shame on opening day.
Dorman wanted his reaction to be seen and heard by everyone, so right above an article about the tuition increase in AUB’s campus newspaper Outlook was his own article, essentially a letter to the students responding to their complaints.
Dorman defended the increase in tuition, saying, “revenues ... have had two primary purposes: to enhance AUB’s ability to provide financial aid to qualified students; and to improve the quality of academic services and faculty research.”
Speaking to The Daily Star, Dean of Students Talal Nizameddin echoed many of the points in Dorman’s letter.
Pointing to the numerous scholarship programs, a second-to-none financial aid program in the country, and AUB’s rising status as an academic institution – now 250th in the world according to QS World Ranking – Nizameddin stood by the tuition increase.
“AUB has actually been proudly accepting more and more students who are socio-economically challenged,” Nizameddin said.
Referring to the students’ demand for more transparency, he added: “AUB’s budget is actually among the most transparent in Lebanon because AUB is an American registered institution that files its figures with U.S. IRS [Internal Revenue Service]. These documents are made public and can even be accessed online.”
Three years ago, in Spring 2010, students took a more physical approach to a proposed tuition increase by blockading classes with chairs and holding demonstrations in front of College Hall. As a result, the University went back on its plan, and agreed with student representatives that for the next three years AUB would only increase tuition by 4 percent.
Three years later, that agreement has expired, and AUB plans to go ahead with their scheduled tuition increase despite the fact students and the administration remain at loggerheads.
The first step, say activists, is to wait until Dorman reviews the committee’s petition. The second step is a peaceful sit-in, and if neither works out, a strike like that of a few years back may be on the cards.
“I don’t think it’s ruled out,” the No Frontiers’ Field said.