BEIRUT: Despite protests last week that saw hundreds of students rally on campus, the president of the American University of Beirut is insisting that tuition must be raised if the institution is to keep its doors open next year.
Students, however, are standing by their demand that the fees be frozen until the university develops alternative revenue streams and increases transparency.
Although AUB President Peter Dorman told The Daily Star that the university would “absolutely” have to increase tuition next year, he added that the figures had not yet been finalized.
“No number has been selected,” he said. “What we’re working with is roughly [a] 6 percent [increase in tuition], but we’ve been looking at numbers higher and we’ve been looking at numbers lower.”
Dorman said increasing operating costs were the main reason behind the proposed tuition increase.
“The costs of commodities, things like gas, fuel and water go up,” he said, adding that ensuring faculty and staff had “living wages” was another factor.
“We do try to budget to the bone,” he said.
Student representatives and activists, however, were unmoved by such explanations.
“We told the administration and we were really clear ... Not increasing [tuition] is our initial demand. Unless this demand is met, we will not negotiate,” said Youssef Sandakli, a student representative on the Tuition Increase Committee.
Sandakli has met with Dorman and University Provost Ahmad Dallal twice to discuss the issue, and another meeting is set to take place in the coming days. “They expressed a number of very good things,” Dorman said of the meetings.
Still, a fundamental disagreement about the proposed tuition fee increase remains.
“They [the administration] tried to give us their viewpoint of the situation, but we didn’t see that the increase was justified by what they told us,” Sandakli said.
While Dorman said that a tuition increase was unavoidable, he supported students’ desire to know how their money was being spent.
“I’m for transparency,” he said. “In view of the high proportion of the revenues that depend on tuition fees, they [the students] want to know more about what we’re doing with their money, and they have every right to know.”
Tala Kammourieh, also a member of the Tuition Increase Committee, says there is cause for concern.
“Based on research we conducted, we deduced that there are several cases of inefficiency and money leakage among several departments in AUB,” she said in an email.
Aside from the tuition freeze, the TIC is demanding the “publication of the university budget showing a detailed distribution of revenues into expenditures,” she added.
Kammourieh also expressed concern that the tuition increase would prove prohibitive for many AUB students and their families.
“Some students might have to withdraw,” she said.
“The degree of students having a hard time paying their tuition is actually massive,” echoed Sandakli.
But Dorman insisted that financial aid would actually be augmented by the proposed tuition increase.
“With the projected numbers we’re working with, we plan to increase financial aid,” he said.
For many middle-class students who don’t qualify for subsidized tuition rates, however, Dorman acknowledged that the timing of the increase was bad.
“We have to be very sensitive to the fact that Lebanon, in particular now, is in an economic crisis. I absolutely hear that message,” he said.
Still, Dorman said higher tuition fees may be the necessary price to pay as the university worked to cement its reputation as a world class institution.
“As we become higher profile and more engaged in research and training, those basic operating costs have to be covered from somewhere, and yet it adds enormously to the value of the degree,” he said.
A number of new facilities on campus, like the building housing the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy, add to basic overhead costs but ultimately increase the university’s capacity to conduct independent research and provide a quality education to students, he said.
Still, many students wish the administration would focus more on the bottom line. Nadim Jabri, a student activist who helped coordinate last week’s protest, said the students might strike if the administration increased tuition for next semester.
“That’s the last resort, but it’s always an option,” he said. “We’re not afraid of this.”
Jabri and 20 other student leaders have formed an unofficial group, Students of AUB, to discuss strategies to sway the administration before the budget is finalized in May.
Dorman acknowledged a standoff with the student body was possible, but said he hoped it wouldn't come to that: “A standoff doesn’t solve anything. If it happens it happens, but that doesn’t change the budget equation. It doesn’t really change the calculus of the problem.”