152 years of pride in our currency, what happened this year?
This was the sentiment shared amongst students who stood in protest in front of the American University of Beirut’s Assembly Hall where the annual Founder’s Day ceremony was held on Monday, the 2nd of December. The protest was in retaliation to a decision taken last summer by AUB’s Board of Trustees and administration to price the students’ tuition in dollars.
The anger stems from the students’ belief that AUB is setting them and their families up for a larger fall if and when the economy crashes. The posters held reflected those views, some of which read “طالِب مِش صَرّاف” (I am a student and not a cashier), “That they may have life and have it less abundantly” (a play on words on the popular AUB slogan etched on its Main Gate which reads more instead of less), and “my parent’s salaries are in Lebanese Liras, and I will only pay in that.” The chants included “يا شهادتي وَينِك وَينِك هَل دولار بَيني و بَينِك” (this dollar is between my diploma and I) and an AUB version of the popular chant of the ongoing Lebanese uprising, “hela hela hela hela ho, price it (tuition) in lira o’ Fadlo” (translated).
Since the decision was made, students have vocally rejected it, with the administration patching it up by revealing new reasons for this change at different intervals that the students quickly shut down. The early excuses were tackled in this article written in August. Recent developments included a closed meeting with the Provost and then Acting President Dr. Harajli of which the meeting minutes were shared, and a Town Hall meeting shortly after with President Khuri, MD. The AUB Secular Club boycotted the Town Hall to send out a message that they are not willing to speak and negotiate. In conversations with students following the Town Hall, they expressed their disappointment in how the meeting went, with them being bombarded with figures and numbers, and conversations about their demand being tactfully avoided. To them, however, now that they have listened to what the administration has to say, they have every right to hold demonstrations as they have not been convinced.
The message being sent out to students is “don’t worry, you will graduate” which is not enough for any of them. While many will graduate in the spring semester, they believe that their responsibility is to protect the student body for years to come. If they accept the dollarization now, the incoming Freshmen and Sophomores in Fall 2020 will accept that as the status quo, which is what the students believe the administration essentially expects and wants.
The issue of tuition being dollarized reflects a national economic crisis that is pushing institutions to dollarize their income in order to protect themselves from a further plummet in the Lebanese Lira which currently stands at an official rate of 1$ = 1,515 L.L, but has reached 2,500 L.L in the black market. The fact that the administration is seemingly protecting its interest at the expense of its students, which it denies, is reason for outrage according to the students. In the meetings, the President, Provost, and CFO all insisted that this decision had been in the making for 3 years and “dollarizing” is better for technical reasons between Beirut and the New York Office.
Students noted that student tuition makes up considerably less than 50% of the university’s income and if pricing in the national currency had worked for 152 years, then the sudden change is unwarranted and should be reversed since that in turn it alleviates the students and their families’ anxieties about the future of their finances. In the probable case of a devaluation of the lira and subsequent inflation which we are already seeing, there will naturally be an increase in tuition fees (more than the yearly 3%) which Dr. Khuri did not deny in the Town Hall meeting. Students will then face the brunt of that and an additional cost of the difference between their earnings and savings in lira and the dollar pricing. For this, the administration introduced a new in-state/out-of-state system wherein pricing will be based on the nature of the students’ incomes in which they will “[charge] those most able to ride out any economic challenge ahead to share the burden of those less fortunate.”
“Lebanon residents whose income and savings are in Lebanese lira (equivalent to “in-state” payers) would continue to be able to pay tuition in lira at or near the base US dollar exchange rate of LL1,515 if the currency is devalued. All other students will be considered “out-of-state” and must continue to clear their accounts in US dollars or in Lebanese lira at the new devalued rate.” This is essentially how the system should work with an emergency fund covering the remaining payments of the “in-state” students as explained in an AUB President’s Perspective email sent out.
The email states that the administration shall be “implementing this system for as long as [they] have the funds to do so,” which is an abstract and vague timeframe that does nothing to relieve payers of the anxiety mentioned earlier. Of course, one could assume that there would be another emergency plan when need be as the administration cannot predict the country’s economic condition on the long run. However, the students insist that pricing in Lebanese Liras is the only guarantee that they will not lose their savings or purchasing power since the university can only subsidize for so long.
Those who will be counted as “in-state” are the students currently receiving financial aid which raises a few questions as it means this new payment system is based on the financial aid system that many deem already flawed with people needing financial aid not receiving it and vice versa. Additionally, it all depends on how much money will come into the emergency funds. What happens if the fund cannot subsidize the tuition fees of 40% of undergraduates? We would expect more specific criteria to distinguish the most vulnerable, but where is the threshold of vulnerability drawn and one can quickly fall into vague and subjective criterion that border on discriminatory. This decision also assumes that families who earn in dollars are wealthier on principle than those who earn in liras, which is unfounded. Finally, it is difficult to prove financial statements in Lebanon and there are ways in which families who earn in dollars could go around this system and pay at the 1,515 exchange rate which the administration urged them not to do.
There is no reason that an emergency fund in these trying times cannot go in parallel with the billing of tuition in the local currency, ensuring that the damage of a devaluation in the lira and an economic crisis will be minimal on the student body. Any other decision places the students and their families in danger and further in need of funds and aid from AUB or third-party sources. The student protests will continue, with the aim of financially protecting current and future students.