AMMAN—The rising cost of a university education in Jordan is shutting out low-income students and revealing long-term structural problems with the financing of higher education.
Efforts by Jordanian universities to make up for shrinking government funding through private investments and “parallel programs” that charge some students higher fees have not been enough to prevent them from increasing tuition. Administrators say they are burdened with many faculty and staff members who, as civil servants, are difficult to fire, and they have no place to turn except tuition to raise the funds they need to support academic programs. But some students say they are being sacrificed to the universities’ need for money.
“It is very difficult, if not impossible, to secure the costs of studying at a university,” said Malik, 21, a third-year law student at Al al-Bayt Public University.
In the law faculty, each semester costs 535 Jordanian dinars ($755), in addition to 200 Jordanian dinars ($300) for registration fees, books and transportation costs. The income of Malik’s family, for whom he is also the sole provider, does not exceed 300 Jordanian dinars per month ($400). As a result, he has to work more hours to be able to support his family and pay the higher fees, making it harder for him to study, he says.
“I have postponed my studies more than once. I postponed it for a period of a year and half a year, because I was unable to pay the university fees,” he said. “I am thinking of dropping out again soon.”
Jordanian students can postpone their education, but cannot take any longer than seven years to complete a degree that traditionally takes four years to finish. Jordan does not have government or university loans for students. Bank loans are available, but have to be repaid in four years, a much shorter time period than such loans require in other countries. The government offers some loans through a Student Support Fund, but under specific and very detailed conditions. Sons of university employees and those with disabilities can get discounted tuition.
Students like Dhuha, a third-year journalism student at Yarmouk University, complain that they have to pay for services they often don’t actually get, including student activities and Internet access, and other services they could live without, such as life insurance, at a cost of about 60 Jordanian dinars per semester ($90).
Fee increases are often announced abruptly, just before the start of a semester, students say. Recently, the University of Science and Technology, a public university in Irbid, in the north, doubled its master’s degree fees in some specialties. The costs of a master’s degree in radiology, hearing and speech sciences, physiotherapy, or network engineering and security went up to 120 Jordanian dinars per hour ($180). The university administration also increased tuition for about a third of the academic programs for those with Jordanian citizenship but who are based abroad. Those tuition rates went up 13 to 40 percent.
“The increase includes new specialties offered by the university to new students only to cover the university’s cost of teaching the students,” said Omar al-Jarrah, the president of the University of Science and Technology, in press statements.
The tuition increases are adding fuel to the ongoing debate about the funding of public universities in the kingdom. Last year, government support for Jordan’s 10 public universities did not exceed 35 million Jordanian dinars ($50 million). Most of that money went to pay the university’s teaching and administrative staff. The University of Jordan—the country’s largest public university with some 49,000 students—has 4,700 employees, including 1,600 university professors, according to a statement from its president Azmi Mahafzah. “Seventy-seven percent of university revenue goes to university employees,” he said. “This hampers progress within the university, which needs to develop its tools in various fields.”
As a result of limited resources, some public universities seek to increase their financial resources through investments. (See the related article, “University of Jordan Seeks Independence Through Investments”). Universities also rely heavily on the parallel education system—a system that admits students with lower-than-usual grades by allowing them to study only if they pay higher fees.
The parallel programs began in 1996, when the government reduced subsidies to universities. Although the government decided that the number of students admitted to the programs should not exceed 30 percent of the total number of students, universities often exceed this limit. The proportion of parallel students is 55 percent of the students enrolled at Mutah University, 60 percent at the University of Science and Technology, 40 percent at the University of Jordan and 39 percent at the Hashemite University, according to a 2015 study by the Thabahtoona campaign, a national campaign to defend students’ rights
Recently, some university departments have asked to be allowed to borrow money from abroad. But the idea was widely rejected.
“Allowing official universities to borrow from abroad and holding these universities fully responsible for the obligation to pay these loans would automatically lead to giving these universities the right to take the appropriate measures to be able to repay their loan,” said Fakher Daas, the coordinator of the Thabahtoona campaign. That could mean raising tuition even more, he said.
Beyond their inability to bring in sufficient revenue, universities’ financial problems also stem from administrative weaknesses, some observers believe. “University administrations did not improve their management of finances and staff recruitment, which exacerbated the current universities’ budget deficit,” said Walid al-Maani, who served as minister of higher education from 2009 to 2011. “Universities found no solution to save money other than the parallel programs, which increased their fiscal deficit.”
“Options are limited: increasing government support or increasing study’s fees,” said Mahafzah, the president of University of Jordan. The 10 public universities in the Kingdom have a budget deficit of approximately 180 million dinar ($253 million). “There is almost complete dependence on revenue on fees.”
Last week, the results of the general secondary education certificate examination (Tawjihi) was announced, and as a result, the higher education ministry has accepted 38,650 students at all its public universities. Last year, 26,386 students were accepted at public universities.
“If we reduce the number, the quality will be better, but we can’t for now as we need money to continue our work,” Mahafzah said.