HEBRON—Deteriorating economic conditions and internecine politics are preventing a majority of master’s degree students in the Gaza Strip from completing their programs, and the situation has significantly worsened over the past academic year, a recent study showed.
In 2019, more than two-thirds of students in programs beyond the bachelor’s degree level could not pay or could only partially pay their tuition, leading to a 70 percent dropout rate that year, according to a 2020 study by Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights, based in Gaza. The dropout rate for the prior year was 40 percent, according to the Ministry of Education and Higher Education in Gaza.
The situation is only apt to get worse with the first two cases of the novel coronavirus being reported in the Gaza Strip, and authorities closing restaurants and shops and halting Friday prayers in mosques. Israeli authorities closed the border with Gaza, blocking even those Palestinians dependent on getting into Israel for work from entering, and humanitarian workers trying to enter Gaza complain of a byzantine process to win entry permits. Gaza’s under-resourced healthcare system is regarded as ill-equipped to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.
In Gaza City, Moath Al-Kahlout, 29, is among the students who couldn’t pay their tuition or finish their degrees even before the pandemic struck. Al-Kahlout enrolled in a two-year master’s degree program in business at the Islamic University of Gaza in 2015 with high hopes for his future. Five years later, those have dreams died, he says.
“After years of being unemployed, I enrolled in the M.A. program in order to find a job. I ended up neither completing my degree nor finding a job,” said Al-Kahlout. “Without any support or encouragement to complete our course of study, it’s almost like higher education is considered an accessory, an extra.”
Pay Cuts and War
The problems for students in the Gaza Strip stem in part from the conflict between the Palestinian political parties Fatah and Hamas. After its victory in the 2006 legislative elections, Hamas seized control of Gaza in 2007 and started setting up its own government agencies, including a Ministry of Education and Higher Education. But government employees, including those at universities, continued receiving their salaries from the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, where Fatah is the dominant party. (See a related article, “For Gaza’s Besieged Universities, Reform Is Low on the Agenda.”)
In recent years, the Palestinian Authority has repeatedly cut the salaries of some 5,000 employees in Gaza, including 400 employees of Gaza’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education employees in Gaza. Those cuts deepened in 2019 to as much as 50 percent, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, or PCHR.
“After years of being unemployed, I enrolled in the M.A. program in order to find a job. I ended up neither completing my degree nor finding a job.”Moath Al-Kahlout
A 29-year-old Gaza City resident
The size of the pay cuts appears to be based on employees’ political loyalties, the center said. For example, employees affiliated with Fatah receive about 50 to 70 percent of their salaries, while employees affiliated with Hamas take home about 40 percent of their salaries. And according to the PCHR, employees didn’t receive their salaries for January and February of 2019 at all.
Wars have deepened Gaza’s economic crisis. There have been three major wars between 2008 and 2014 in Gaza after Hamas took control, causing immense damage to the infrastructure and economy. At the same time, Israel has imposed a land, sea and air blockade since 2007, making it difficult for Gazans to import or export materials, goods, and money.
Fallout for Universities
The economic crisis has deeply affected universities, most of which are administered by the government.
“The salary cut policy affects major universities that provide higher education programs, such as the Islamic University and Al-Azhar University–Gaza,” said Ayman Al-Yazouri, assistant under secretary for higher education at the Ministry of Education in Gaza. He added that students can’t finish their degree programs because of the cuts. “The people were in shock due to the large deduction from their salaries,” he added.
Alyan Al-Hawli, academic deputy dean at the Islamic University, said the university is highly affected by the economic situation.
“The number of students declined due to the economic situation,” he said, referring to a decrease of 30 percent over five years. “The university does not receive any governmental or public support,” he said. “This creates a financial crisis and deficit at the university, too.”
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Ahmad Abu-Qamar, 29, was a master’s degree student in economics at Al-Azhar University–Gaza for five years until he was forced to quit after taking a salary cut of 40 percent.
“With the salary cut, I couldn’t pay my tuition,” said Abu-Qamar, who works in communication and has a wife and three children. “It was too hard to manage the expenses of my family alongside my tuition.”
Meanwhile, Al-Yazouri, the assistant under secretary for higher education, says there is another issue facing students: “It is hard for people to find jobs in Gaza with this difficult economic situation.”
“The people were in shock due to the large deduction from their salaries.”Ayman Al-Yazouri
The assistant under secretary for higher education at the Ministry of Education in Gaza
According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, the unemployment rate of 45 percent in Gaza Strip in 2019 was three times higher than in the West Bank, with 13 percent. This leads to students not being able to find jobs to pay for tuition and living expenses.
Scant Support for Students
Other factors also make it tough to finish degrees, say students.
“Universities do not provide any financial support for students such as allowing them to pay in installments or giving grants,” said Yousef Al-Helo, 28, who is pursuing a master’s degree in regional and international studies at the Islamic University. “Universities only provide loans that should be paid back during the second semester along with that semester’s tuition.”
Meanwhile, Abu-Qamar, the former economics student at Al-Azhar University–Gaza, says he was penalized financially for taking too long to finish his degree, even though the delay was due to an inability to pay his tuition. He exceeded the allowed period of eight semesters by three years, or six semesters.
“I have to pay about $84 for each semester I postponed,” he said.
The cost of attending higher education is another barrier. The fees range from $3,600 to $5,000 annually, excluding the thesis, which costs around $2,000. The average monthly salary in Gaza is about $350, according to Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics.
“Compared to my salary, the tuition is extremely expensive,” Abu-Qamar said.
Nasser Abu Al-Atta, dean of student affairs at Al-Aqsa University, counters the criticism of universities. He says it’s no surprise that the higher-education system is deeply affected by the “economic siege” in Gaza. Even so, he adds that the university provides loans and grants to help students pay for their programs.”
“Although the university provides a loan program for students, the students hesitate to apply (for loans) and wind up not being able to pay these loans,” he said. “By not paying the loans, students cannot receive their degrees.”