BEIRUT: Beirut university student Mohammad El Sahily was close to graduating in computer science, but uncertainty now clouds his future following a plunge in the Lebanese pound that has left him and thousands like him unable to pay their tuition fees.
With Lebanon facing its worst economic crisis ever, two private universities, the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the Lebanese American University (LAU) have raised the exchange rate their fees are based on to 3,900 Lebanese pounds per dollar – at a stroke making teaching almost three times more expensive for students paying in the local currency.
AUB student Sahily was studying for his final exams in December when he received an email announcing the hike.
“(There was) fear, stress, desperation. I don’t know what I will do, I can’t afford paying for the spring (semester) if I want to take a full load (of courses), so I will have to either take two courses only or nothing at all,” he told Reuters.
“This is the case of around 80% of people I know.”
Sahily was one of many undergraduates who took to the streets in December to protest the universities’ move.
Leen Elharake, a LAU engineering student and vice president of the student council, called it “catastrophic”, and some students are now calling for a tuition strike.
Lebanon has traditionally prided itself on its education system, set up in the 19th century by American and French missionaries and producing a steady stream of graduates who land top jobs in the Middle East region and beyond.
But the pressure the system now faces – both from the economic crisis and a strict coronavirus lockdown that has banned face-to-face teaching since Jan. 7 – is weighing as heavily on the institutions as on the students.
The economic crisis has left the official peg of 1,500 pounds to the dollar that the universities used to use well out of step with the rate on the street, which has topped 8,500 in recent weeks.
LAU President Michel Mawad said the university was “forced” to increase the exchange rate to 3,900 – the central bank’s stipulated rate – to retain staff and operations, underlining that the tuition fee in dollars had remained unchanged for years.
“We are suffering from this situation as an institution just as much as the students or the parents are suffering, this actually has been imposed on us,” he said.
LAU and AUB introduced partial payments in dollars for salaries, in a step that AUB’s Dean of Student Affairs Tala Nizameddin said is to ensure “a base line for survival”.
They both also increased financial aid to students by significant amounts.
Thousands of Lebanese students abroad have also been caught up in another consequence of Lebanon’s financial crisis – banks blocking most overseas transfers.
“Those who don’t have dollars can’t travel nor study in Lebanon. What is the message they are trying to convey?” said Jad Hani, an economics senior at AUB.
(Writing by Ayat Basma, editing by Maha El Dahan and John Stonestreet)
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