The plummet of the local currency has brought on disastrous consequences, the latest of which may be the doubling of university tuition fees in the coming years.
As the government and central bank continue to deflect blame onto one another, students have become speculative towards their ability to pay tuition should the currency officially increase when pegged against the dollar.
The official exchange rate remains at LBP 1,505 for every one dollar, but the black market rates are rising by the day, leaving the future of the economy massively unknown.
Impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on universities
In mid-March 2020, Lebanon entered a nationwide lockdown, shutting down universities and schools across the country. Universities, like many other businesses, chose to conduct courses and exams remotely by using online teaching or video software. As of now, many students are likely to complete the academic year via remote teaching methods, as semesters approach their close before the end of lockdown.
When these decisions were taken, universities quickly expressed a commitment to making their students’ experiences with remote teaching as smooth and easy as possible. Yet after weeks of remote teaching, it is clear that some things can never be replicated online as they would be in real life.
It became clear to students early on that their experiences with online courses would not be the same as that of physical teaching. Students had paid tuitions in full to attend half of their semester from the comfort of their own home, away from the resources they would normally have access to, such as libraries, labs, fitness facilities, student lounges and so on.
When these payments were made, students had expected to have access to this vast array, but are now being deprived of it due to conditions simply out of anyone’s control. Not only so, but with lockdown virtually putting economic activity to a complete halt, several households had to rely on savings and other sources of funding to compensate for the lack of a monthly income.
According to a video by Mada, a Beirut-based youth and activist network, this sentiment was shared by students internationally. Many have demanded that fees be lowered for the current semester, and few have yielded success, but not in Lebanon.
Mada’s research shows that in one case, Eastern Kentucky University lowered its fees from $735 per credit hour for out-of-campus students to $400 for online classes. With dorms closing for the semester, students were also exempted from on-campus housing and meal fees. Other universities have decreased the price of any one credit hour by 25 percent, as students chose to protest to reclaim their money.
In cases where this could not be done, hardship funds were instated, such as in the University of Arts London. Queen Mary’s University, London, has also given its on-campus residents the option of vacating their dorms and receiving full refunds for the remainder of the semester.
In an attempt to ask for a partial refund for the semester, one student from the American University of Beirut reached out to the institution’s president Fadlo Khuri, citing that the quality of teaching had decreased when moved online. Khuri rejected her demand, instead offering her the option of deferring her participation in the summer and fall semesters if she remains unsatisfied with the teaching. Khuri’s reply was then posted online, sparking outrage across the country.
Recently, Khuri shared a university-wide statement that expressed Lebanon’s compounding crises has also been felt by AUB. In the statement, it was announced that senior staff will face significant pay cuts, and highlighted the possibility of layoffs and the closure of some programs and departments.
The impact of the economy on tuition fees
With unemployment on the rise and the currency plummeting, frugality has become a must for several households. The COVID-19 lockdown, coupled with poor economic activity, has resulted in a devaluation of the lira by approximately 200 percent over the past few months.
Lebanon has spent over 40 days in lockdown, with measures now extended for the fourth time to at least May 24.
Some businesses have easily adapted to remote working, but other workers, such as those in the hospitality sector, were largely affected by the lockdown that has rendered them wageless and reliant on savings, if any.
The economic stagnation has reached a low point that the country has never witnessed before. As parents grapple with these burdening changes, many students are left with no choice but to seek refunds or financial aid during these trying times. The grim reality, however, is that universities will only look towards surviving the current economic collapse, regardless of how this will impact current and future students.
According to Mada, a government plan has projected the inevitable increase of the official rate of the lira when pegged against the dollar. It is anticipated that by 2024, the rate will reach LBP 2,979 for every one dollar. This ultimately affects the ability of students to pay tuition fees, threatening their continuity of study.
This comes after many universities attempted to formalize only accepting dollars towards their tuition fees, which resulted in backlash and protests from students who demanded that they be able pay in the local currency. The institutions then retracted this decision in favor of the lira.
Yet even if payments were made in the local currency, this does not make them any more affordable. With the black market rate in fluctuation, prices for everything are increasing, even for basic necessities such as groceries.
Working individuals, some of which used to earn their salaries in dollars, are now being paid in the local currency according to the official exchange rate of LBP 1, 505. This renders many unable to afford basic goods and services at the current time, let alone expensive tuition fees.
In response to the situation, Mada has set a list of demands, including the lowering of tuition fees for the coming years and refunding a segment of this past semester’s fees. As the ruling class continues to ignore the demands of its people, the only hope is for the people to band together and rally for change.