Jordanians protest over soaring university tuition fees

Activists warn that higher education is becoming out of reach for poor and middle-class students in Jordan.

Student protest hike in university tuition fees
Dozens of students and their parents protested in Amman, calling on the government to provide equal access to education for all [Thabahtoona/Al Jazeera]
Amman – Muntaser al-Karaki is 26, but he still has at least one more year before he graduates from university. His undergraduate education has been interrupted several times over the past eight years as he struggled to acquire enough funds to cover his tuition fees.

“It has been a tough journey,” Karaki told Al Jazeera, noting he was unable to graduate with his peers, instead, postponing his studies repeatedly to earn money.

During off semesters, holidays and weekends, Karaki works in construction with his father, desperately trying to keep up with rising tuition fees.

Frustrated by watching many other students fall into the same trap, Karaki launched an online campaign last month to collect donations for Jordanian students who are struggling to access higher education.

“We have to fight poverty with education, but the poor in this country do not have access to good education, so the cycle goes on,” Karaki said.

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Students and activists warn that higher education in Jordan is becoming out of reach for poor and middle-class students as tuition fees skyrocket, unregulated by the government.  

This summer, dozens of students and their parents protested outside the prime minister’s office in Amman, calling on the government to regulate tuition fees and to provide equal access to education for all students.

Education is gradually becoming a privilege for the elite, as it is becoming very difficult for the poor to educate their children.

by Fakher Daas, head of Thabahtoona

“Education is gradually becoming a privilege for the elite, as it is becoming very difficult for the poor to educate their children,” said protester Fakher Daas, the head of Thabahtoona , a Jordanian campaign aimed at defending students’ rights.

In 1996, Jordanian public universities introduced a new alternative admissions scheme that allowed students to study majors they could not secure due to competitive admission – provided they paid double – or even triple -the regular admission rates.

Instead of paying 1,117 Jordanian dinars ($1,574) each year, Karaki pays 2,800 dinars ($3,900) a year to study electrical engineering .

Karaki says his high-school grades were high enough that he should have been admitted under the regular fee structure for competition-based enrolment, but his university did not abide by national admission regulations.

Admission regulations, mandated by Jordan’s Ministry of Higher Education, state that students on the alternative scheme cannot exceed 30 percent of total enrolment for each major, critics say the alternative admissions process has become the norm, rather than the exception. 

“More students on my course are doing the alternative scheme, rather than regular admission,” Karaki said.

Based on data gathered from students, Thabahtoona, according to Daas, estimates that more than 60 percent of students studying majors that are subject to high demand – such as medicine, pharmacology, and science – are admitted through alternative schemes and charged higher rates. 

Defending the practise,   universities point to growing budget deficits and a lack of government subsidies as a key reason behind the increase in the number of students on the alternative scheme.

“The government funding is not steady. Sometimes we do not receive anything for years, and when we do, it is not enough to pay salaries of employees for a few months,” Khulaif Tarawneh, the president of the University of Jordan, told Al Jazeera.

According to Tarawneh, the government allocated 18.5 million dinars ($26m) for the University of Jordan for 2012-2014, but the university received less than a quarter of those funds.

The Jordanian government, however, says there is nothing more it can do.

“Jordan is by no means able to provide free education or keep providing subsidised education, given the difficult economic conditions and the rising cost of education,” Labeeb Khadra, Jordan’s minister of higher education, told Al Jazeera.

Khadra acknowledged that the government’s annual support to Jordan’s 10 public universities – which totals 75 million dinars ($105m) – is only enough to cover seven percent of the universities’ operating costs.

But he denied accusations by students and activists that the government is embarking on a “de facto privatisation” of the kingdom’s schools, calling the alternative admissions system a way to “encourage diversity among universities”.

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Average monthly salaries in Jordan stand at around 400 dinars ($560) a month, and as most families have several children, it is becoming “impossible” for many to afford higher education, according to Thabahtoona.

Mazen Marji, an economic analyst, said the Jordanian government has allowed universities to abuse the


alternative admissions system rather than raise tuition fees across the board, which would have set off a political firestorm.

“If they raised tuition fees for regular schemes, a revolution would have erupted in the country,” Marji, who is also professor of finance at the World Islamic Science and Education University, told Al Jazeera.”But by depicting it as an issue of choice, they are avoiding controversy.”

In the meantime, Karaki’s campaign is gaining steam. He is currently fundraising for several students who cannot cover the costs of their education. Karaki says he works on a case by case basis.For example, if a student is short of 1,000 dinars to pay tuition fees, Karaki will post the student’s details and collect donations for that case only. 

But as unemployment rates in the country  continue to rise , Karaki and his peers say they are worried that their hard work may not pay off anytime soon.

“I just wonder what future is left for me,” Karaki said. “Until I graduate, save money for a house and marriage, I will be in my early thirties – a life I should have started 10 years ago.”

Source: Al Jazeera