Activists warn that higher education is becoming out of reach for poor and middle-class students in Jordan.
Amman – Students at the University of Jordan say they will continue their round-the-clock, sit-in protest after the school’s administration failed to meet all of their demands.
Hundreds have been protesting against fee increases at the university in the capital, Amman, since the end of February, galvanising student and youth activists throughout Jordan. The protest was temporarily suspended last month when university administrators agreed to partially roll back previously implemented fee increases, but students now say they will continue their sit-in until further concessions are granted.
“Twenty days, 40 days, 100 days – we don’t care. We will stay,” protest organiser Samir Mashoor told Al Jazeera.
In a country where rocketing costs and depleted postgraduate opportunities have left many young people with little hope, the University of Jordan has been a focal point for student activism for several years. In 2014, the university dramatically increased fees for postgraduate courses and for an alternative payment stream called Moazi, which allows students – even those with lower grades – to pay a higher rate to secure admission.
Thabahtoona, an organisation that campaigns for affordable education, says an increasing proportion of university spots in Jordan are being allocated to the Moazi stream at increasingly high rates, as a means of generating funding for universities. It estimates that between 30 and 50 percent of all undergraduate places are now accessible only through Moazi.
We stayed 20 days in the university, sleeping in the university without going to our homes. This made our community and people and Jordan raise their voices to stand up with us.
When prices for the Moazi system were increased, Thabahtoona was one of several organisations that campaigned against the rise. At the University of Jordan, students from across the political spectrum held regular, short protests – but this year, frustrated by the continuing lack of action, they decided to escalate their campaign.
“First they came for a few hours, stood in front of the demonstration building, and then went home. The leader of the university would give promises, but the promises were never done, so they would come back,” Abdelrahman Wahid, a third-year architecture student who has participated in the protests, told Al Jazeera. “After two years, the students decided to come to the university and never go back home until they met all their needs.”
On February 28, about 70 students began sleeping at the university’s Amman campus each night. After two weeks of protests, the school announced that university president Ekhlief Tarawneh’s term would not be renewed – news the students, but not the administration, credited to student action.
Then, after nearly three weeks of the continuous sit-in, the university agreed to reduce the initial fee increase – which raised fees by between 100 and 180 percent – by 50 percent.
Students greeted this announcement as a victory, with hours of chanting, singing and speeches. But the celebrations were short-lived, and just a week after the initial concessions were granted, students announced that they would continue their sit-in until the fee increases were entirely reversed. Organisers told Al Jazeera that they had met the university’s new president and were committed to continue negotiating.
“We understand that they need to balance between what we want and the situation in the country,” Mashoor said. “But we’re in a strong situation when we sleep at the university. We won’t end this until we have an agreement that’s signed by them.”
University officials told Al Jazeera that the fee increases were the only option in the face of an immense funding deficit. Tarawneh has stated publicly in the past that students’ admission fees did not cover the full cost of their education, and that raising the costs of Moazi was a “last resort”.
One University of Jordan official, who spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity, said the 50 percent rollback already granted would be a serious stretch on the school’s budget, noting: “This is what happens when the government does not support the universities.”
In recent decades, demand for higher education in Jordan has exploded, while funding has significantly dropped. Public funding now covers just 15 percent of university budgets, while student fees make up 30 percent more. Universities are looking to alternative income streams – such as businesses on campus or corporate partnerships – to fund their activities, but often this is not enough. The University of Jordan alone is running a deficit of 20 million Jordanian dinars ($28m).
“Universities themselves don’t decide how many students they’re going to take under Moazi. It’s decided by the higher education council, and so they keep pushing them more and more and also keep squeezing their budgets more and more,” Ezra Karmel, a researcher at the youth-focused NGO Identity Centre, told Al Jazeera.
“The cost is much beyond what most families can spend. You’re spending a couple of thousand a year on tuition when you have a few hundred a month from the father’s income for the whole family. It’s completely disproportionate.”
Meanwhile, as demonstrations grind on at the University of Jordan, students say they are already exhausted, describing their campaign as a learning curve. At the same time, they view even the partial success of their sit-in as a breakthrough for student activism in Jordan, saying it has inspired them to keep up the pressure.
“This is important for our student unity, to show the students can decide for themselves what they want to do, and make the students a partner in making decisions… It is the first time in a long time that people get something, they disagree with something, they act, and they get what they want,” Mashoor said.
“We stayed 20 days in the university, sleeping in the university without going to our homes. This made our community and people and Jordan raise their voices to stand up with us … because we are here for their children and their values.”