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Jordan students protest against rising university fees

Students claim skyrocketing fees and declining quality at universities are to blame for high graduate unemployment
Student protesters hold signs that read 'Universities are for the poor, too!' (MEE/Fakhr Daas)

AMMAN - Roughly translated, Thabahtoona means “you are killing us”. It’s a bold name for a protest movement targeting rising fees and declining quality at Jordan’s universities. But for thousands of students, the sentiment doesn’t feel like an exaggeration: amid a sharp increase in university attendance, the term seems to perfectly sum up many people’s frustrations towards higher education.

“I think universities are becoming companies,” activist Fakher Daas told Middle East Eye. An unassuming figure and a dentist by trade, Daas helped found Thabahtoona in 2006 in protest against fee increases for students. Since then, it has grown into a movement that critiques Jordan’s higher education system and advocates “educational democracy” in order to put greater power in the hands of students.

Higher education in Jordan has exploded in recent decades. There are now 10 public universities in the country, as well as 18 private institutions, and the university population has increased by 10-15 percent annually. Around 40,000 graduates enter the workplace each year.

At the same time, university has become more expensive, thanks in part to a complicated system that allows students to enter college with lower grades by paying more. The Muazi, or parallel programme, was introduced in 2002, and Thabahtoona activists now estimate it accounts for between 30 and 60 percent of all seats in public universities. Many students feel they’re forced to enter through the Muazi system by increased competition on regular places - and that education is becoming increasingly unaffordable as a result.

“When it comes to the universities, the first problem is money, the second is money, the third is money,” student Mohammed Haymour, told MEE. He believes that by paying higher fees on Muazi, and through other quotas like those for military families, certain students have easier access to university places – and that the standard of education and graduates is nosediving as a result.

“These students are the graduates, they leave the university, they teach in schools,” he continued. “The education in the schools is less good, and then the cycle continues.”

Students march against high tuition fees in Amman (MEE / Fakhr Daas)

Haymour’s concerns are shared by many students and activists. A lack of external evaluation means it’s difficult to trace changes in material terms, but all the students and graduates MEE spoke to expressed dissatisfaction with the quality of teaching at universities. They spoke of a culture where students were able to pass courses easily without grasping their content.

One almost universally repeated complaint – from employers, students and experts – was that graduates of English-language courses were frequently unable to speak or write English when they collected their degree.

Jordan’s General Secretary of Education, Professor Hani al-Dmour, acknowledged these problems at some universities. He said a formalised competency exam, sat by students in Jordan, had exposed weaknesses at some colleges. “We’re very proud of the quality of our graduates, and it’s a challenge to maintain that,” he told MEE. “We have more than 20 universities, and each of them is different.”

But rather than disadvantaging students, al-Dmour argued, Muazi quotas respond to oversubscription in a handful of courses and institutions where too many students compete for limited places and “the pressure is high”.

“If you ask anyone in Jordan, what you would like to study, he would say, medicine or engineering at the University of Jordan,” he said. “This is up to them. We don’t force them to take this, or not … The choice is up to the students.”

At the core of the Muazi programme, however, is one important purpose: income. Universities claim they’re forced to increase fees because of a lack of funding and al-Dmour agrees with this sentiment. Today government funding accounts for no more than 15 percent of a university’s budget, and regular student fees for just 30 percent more. Institutions need to find money from somewhere, and students are an obvious source. But in a country where the average monthly salary is around 400 Jordanian Dinars – $560 – when universities charge between 30 and 95 dinars an hour, the cost can be crippling.

Is the expensive and competitive process of getting a degree worth it for Jordanians? Sadly, it’s rarely the case. When they leave university, graduates find they’re one among many degree holders in a labour market that simply doesn’t need huge numbers of engineers or accountants. Only 30 percent of newly created jobs in Jordan are filled by those leaving university, and 40 percent of the country’s unemployed are now university graduates - a rate that’s increased by about 20 percent in the last 10 years.

“You can see people are graduating but they don’t find a job, and then they go away and become cab drivers. It’s not bad to be a cab driver, but it’s not what they expected. And this is the issue that’s making young people at universities discouraged,” Ghaleb Sanous, a recent graduate who now works in research, told MEE. 

“That makes it even harder on them to make any effort on themselves to make better grades. They just want to get past the university thing, you know, just having some fun, just having some grades enough to get past, because that’s what they have to do.”

“At the end of the day families are exhausting their assets and they’re not getting their return on that, even as an investment in their kids’ future. There has been a huge gap between the output of educational institutions and the needs of the labour market for some time now,” Aya Samara, a researcher at youth-focused NGO Identity Centre, explained. “There’s been loads of talk about what's needed to bridge that gap and make sure Jordanian education is competitive, and that it’s demand driven, especially because Jordan has boasted for years about having a strong workforce. But there’s very, very little that has been done to address this gap.”

Students march in Amman, holding signs that read 'Universities are for the poor, too!' (MEE/Fakhr Daas)

At the Higher Education Ministry, close to where Jordan university buzzes with students, al-Dmour said that the government is encouraging vocational training to improve university education. But universities, he said, also have to focus on finding new means of funding, like establishing partnerships with private institutions. “Universities are not making a profit, they are trying to cover the cost,” he said. “This is a big challenge for them.”

For the activists of Thabahtoona, however, it’s this imperative to make money that’s making education suffer in universities - and much of the blame lies in funding cuts by the government. For Mohammed Haymour and many others, this contributes to a university experience that’s uninspiring and frustrating. Most days he wakes up at 6am to travel some 80km to his university in Mafraq, where studying is more affordable than Amman. But when he’s there, he said, university is characterised by a depoliticisation on campus, the sidelining of students' wishes, and a student body demotivated by declining standards and few opportunities.

He’s attempted to organise to change things, but unions and organisations aren’t allowed on campus without the approval of the university’s dean. And with the number of students in Jordan still growing - attendance is forecast to top 500,000 by 2025 - solutions to Jordan's higher education problems might not be close at hand.

“They’ll work to make profits, even if it works to make the universities as companies,” Daas said. “The universities are a golden source to make money from students. And they know well that the Jordanian people are hungry for education."