PSE270220MA001HEBRON--Deteriorating economic conditions and internecine politics are preventing a majority of postgraduate students in the Gaza Strip from completing their degrees, a situation that significantly worsened over the past academic year, a recent study showed.

In the fall of 2019, about 70 percent of postgraduate students could not pay or could only partially pay their tuition, leading to a 70 percent dropout rate in the first semester of the 2019-2020 academic school year, according to a 2020 study by Al-Mezan Center for Human Rights based in Gaza. The dropout rate for the prior academic year was 40 percent, according to the Ministry of Education and Higher Education in Gaza.

Moath Al-Kahlout, 29, of Gaza city is one of those postgrads who didn't finish his degree. He enrolled in a two-year postgraduate program in business at Islamic University in Gaza in 2015 with high hopes for his future. Five years later, those dreams died, he says.

"After years of being unemployed, I enrolled in the MA program in order to find a job. I ended up not completing my degree, nor finding a job," said Moath Al-Kahlout, who said he couldn't pay his tuition. “Without any support or encouragement to complete our course of study, it's almost like higher education is considered an accessory, an extra."

The problem for students stems back to Hamas's victory in the 2006 legislative elections and the ensuing armed conflict with the Palestinian Authority, which currently governs the West Bank, and Hamas' seizure of Gaza. Due to the conflict, the Palestinian Authority began cutting salaries based on the political loyalty of the employee – to Hamas, Fatah etc. Those cuts deepened starting in 2019 to as much as 50 percent of salaries for 5,043 employees, including 402 employees of Gaza's Ministry of Education and Higher Education, according to the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR).

For example, employees of the Palestinian Authority, mainly Fatah, receive about 50-70 percent of their salaries. Meanwhile, employees of Hamas take home about 40 percent.
And according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights (PCHR), 5,043 Palestinian employees didn't receive their salaries for Jan and Feb 2019 at all.

Also, there have been three major wars between 2008 and 2014 in Gaza after Hamas took control. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the three wars have caused immense damage to the infrastructure and economy. At the same time, Israel imposed a land, sea and air blockade in 2007, which continues and makes it difficult for Gazans to import or export materials, goods, and also money.

The cuts, which arise out of the economic crisis in Gaza, have 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,” said Ayman Al-Yazouri, assistant undersecretary for higher education at the Ministry of Education in Gaza. He added that students can't finish their degree programs due to cuts. “The people were in shock due to the large deduction from their salaries,” he added.

Alyan Al-Hawli, academic deputy dean at 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."

Ahmad Abu-Qamar, 29, was a masters student in economics at Al-Azhar University in 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, works in communication and who has a wife and three children. "It was too hard to manage the expenses of my family alongside my tuition."

Meanwhile, Al-Yazouri says there is another issue facing students: "It is hard for people to find jobs in Gaza with this difficult economic situation.”

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 able to find jobs to pay for tuition and living expenses.

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 studies regional and international studies for an MA at Islamic University. "Universities only provide loans that should be paid back during the second semester along with that semester's tuition."

Meanwhile, Abu-Qamar 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 monthly average salary in Gaza is about $350, according to Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS).

“Compared to my salary, the tuition is extremely expensive,” Abu-Qamar said.

Al-Aqsa University Dean of Student Affairs Dr. Nasser Abu Al-Atta, meanwhile, counters the criticism. He says it's no surprise that the system is highly 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. By not paying the loans, students cannot receive their degrees,” he said.

Photo: February 27, 2020 - Gaza strip, Palestine - Groups of students sitting in the main yard of Al-Azher University.
Credit: Mohammad Atallah/ ARA Network Inc. (02/27/20)

Story/photo published date: 03/23/20

A version of this story was published in Al-Fanar.