The coronavirus pandemic and two lockdowns are threatening to sharply increase university dropout rates in the Gaza Strip even as classes resumed in August.
According to a new report by the charity Refugees International, many students have not paid tuition for the forthcoming academic year, indicating they may not return.
“Thirty percent of students dropped out this semester, and only 10 percent paid the full tuition fees,” one university vice president in Gaza told researchers.
From March until May, Gaza saw a near-total lockdown, shutting down businesses and schools and most of the economy. Then in early August, as students began to attend classes in-person at universities, an upswing in Covid-19 infections led the government to institute another total lockdown on Aug. 24—only supermarkets were exempted.
While it is too early for concrete data, anecdotal evidence and interviews with university officials, students and researchers point to a decline in enrollment due to the two lockdowns and deteriorating economic conditions in the strip, accelerating a drop-out trend over the past few years.
The main reasons are financial and technical, officials say.
“The situation in universities is getting worse as well as the dropout rate, which will keep increasing if the situation remains the same, with the high levels of poverty and unemployment alongside the Israeli blockade and the Palestinian Authority’s (incompetence),” said Adnan Abu Amer, head of the political science department at Ummah University, in Gaza.
40 Percent Drop-Out Rate
Ahmed Kordia, the head of resource development at University College of Applied Sciences in Gaza, says he’s already seeing a dropout rate for his university of about 40 percent for the fall semester.
Many students lack laptops and have a poor Internet connection, said Kordia. “And some depend on 3G (to access classes), which they buy for a dollar for a few hours to use.”
When the pandemic hit earlier this year, universities around the world, including those in Gaza, tried to move to online classes to prevent disruption to education. But Gaza’s students have faced barriers to such classes such as power cuts, a lack of access to laptops or smartphones, and no Internet at home.
Many students lack laptops and have a poor Internet connection, “and some depend on 3G (to access classes), which they buy for a dollar for a few hours to use.”Ahmed Kordia
Head of resource development at University College of Applied Sciences in Gaza.
At the same time, many university officials, teachers and students were new to e-learning, officials say, only having tried only a few experimental classes when the coronavirus lockdowns first occurred this past spring. In late August, however, the 17 universities in Gaza were expected to become full-service institutions of e-learning. They weren’t ready, say officials. (See a related article, “Palestine’s Universities Scramble to Move to Online Learning During Coronavirus Shutdown.”)
“The e-learning system is a new experience for lecturers and universities that are still lacking experience and training in it,” Kordia said. He added that the universities are providing lecturers with training sessions on how to use the online platforms.
Meanwhile, politics is exacerbating the situation.
In 2007, Israel imposed a land, sea and air blockade after Hamas took over the Gaza Strip following a military conflict with Fatah, one of the main Palestinian factions. The blockade has devastated the economy in Gaza, causing widespread destruction and high unemployment.
In August, Israel tightened the blockade. Now, poverty is increasing in Gaza due to a combination of ongoing effects of the blockade and severe job losses from the three-month lockdown this spring. The World Bank noted a 10 percent rise in poverty in the
Gaza Strip, with 80 percent of the population living below the poverty line before the pandemic.
At the same time, Israel had also announced a plan to annex parts of the West Bank. As a result, the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank, refused a transfer of tax revenue, which left the authority struggling. It then stopped paying for electricity for Gaza exacerbating the already acute power shortages there, the Refugees International report said.
The Shadow of Politics
Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit earlier this year, these deteriorating economic conditions and internecine politics were already hurting students working toward advanced degrees in the Gaza Strip, causing them to drop out in high numbers before completing their degrees, a situation that has significantly worsened over the past few years. (See a related article, “Many Master’s Degree Students in Gaza Are Forced to Drop Out.”)
Now, university students who are still enrolled say they feel trapped by the situation and doubt they can complete their degrees.
Abdullah Abu Zayada, a journalism and mass communication student at Al-Azhar University, says he has no choice but to drop out even though he only has one year left to finish his degree.
“I am a fourth-year student, meaning that I need only 18 hours to graduate,” he said. “But with the current pandemic, I won’t be able to register as I can’t pay.” During the summer semester, he added, he struggled: He doesn’t have a laptop computer and therefore couldn’t do his assignments and tests.
“I am a fourth-year student, meaning that I need only 18 hours to graduate. But with the current pandemic, I won’t be able to register as I can’t pay.”Abdullah Abu Zayada
A journalism and mass communication student at Al-Azhar University
Another issue is engagement: Students say there is no point in paying for university if all they are going to get is one-way classes, often delivered as videos they can only watch passively. “We do not have Zoom sessions, which makes classes tiresome as there is no engagement and participation,” said Saja Refi, a third-year journalism, communications and technology student at Al-Israa University. “All we do is watch the lecturers talking.”
Laboratory Work Halted
The pandemic is especially affecting students who need laboratory work and other practical classes. That is also having a dampening impact on enrollment, students and officials say. “Many journalism classes depend on the lab and equipment, which are canceled due to the pandemic,” Abdullah said.
Kordia said that has hit his university particularly hard.
“Eighty percent of the university’s courses are practical—they depend on lab work and workshops,” he said. “As a result, the university has postponed several courses until the pandemic is over or under control.”
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Meanwhile, even students with laptops and steady Internet access struggle to study at home.
“The other discouraging problem is the high level of concentration needed for online classes, which is impossible at home,” said Samar Dawoud, a third-year student at Al-Azhar. “I can’t escape the voices of my family members in our small house. I also can’t be alone in a room because there isn’t anywhere else for my siblings to go.”
Weighing all this, students are getting discouraged from paying tuition and remaining in school, officials say. At the same time, academic officials worry that the universities have not done enough. “The universities do not have a clear vision or any plans to deal with the situation,” said Amer. “That is why students are not encouraged to pay tuition.”
Kordia said that there is a hope that things go somewhat back to normal in October with the reopening of universities, something currently under consideration.
Students hope so, too, especially those who haven’t dropped out yet.
“We have to learn to coexist with Covid-19,” said Samar. “It is the only way to keep us enrolled in universities.”