The American University of Beirut will adopt a new exchange rate, effectively increasing tuition fees by 160 per cent and throwing into doubt the future of thousands of students at one of the Middle East's top universities.
On Tuesday, AUB President Fadlo Khuri said that the gap between revenue and expenditures had widened to an unsustainable point – a consequence of Lebanon’s crippling financial crisis.
"We were afraid this time would come when this arrangement would no longer be feasible. The gap is growing untenably between the tuition fee revenue AUB collects in [local currency] and the expenditure we are obliged to pay out in hard currency," Mr Khuri said.
“Therefore, after intensive discussions with the Board of Trustees, faculty representatives, student representatives and other stakeholders, we have decided – for the financial survival of AUB – to adjust the exchange rate for tuition payments to match the electronic platform of the Banque du Liban, currently set at LBP 3,900.”
The university, widely recognised as one of the best in the region, has been hit by the dual crisis of Lebanon's financial meltdown and the Covid-19 pandemic. In July, it laid off about 1,500 employees as part of cost-cutting measures to reduce gaping deficit.
Although the official exchange rate is 1,515 Lebanese pounds to $1, the street value is about 8,000 pounds to the dollar, prompting a cost of living crisis and pushing millions into poverty. Lebanon is also drifting into a foreign currency crisis, with falling dollar reserves and the price of imports rocketing.
The university had previously charged term fees at a rate of 1,515 Lebanese pounds, while paying out expenses at other rates. The rate switch effectively represents a 160 per cent rise in tuition fees.
In his statement, Mr Khuri urged those able to pay in US dollars from overseas incomes or savings to do so.
“By doing so, these families will earn the gratitude of the entire community for demonstrating solidarity with their fellow AUBites in Lebanon, whose savings and purchasing power have plummeted this year. They will enable dedicated and deserving students – friends, compatriots, and classmates of their own talented AUB students – to continue their education and realise their dreams,” he said.
The university, which opened more than 150 years ago, counts several heads of state among its alumni.
Noha El Yaman, 21 a medical student, told The National that a number of her friends were questioning their future after the announcement.
“It’s very disheartening that the education system here in Lebanon prioritises money over teaching. Our tuition is $40,000 per year, so we’re going to be among the most affected students on campus and a lot of my friends raised concerns about not being able to finish the year," she said, as she prepares to sit her finals.
"Some might have to stop in the middle of their degree. I think there is a lot of confusion. It’s very worrying. I think the future is bleak at best.”
Members of the faculty were also frustrated with the decision. Sylvain Perdigon, a professor of anthropology, called the decision “tragic and outrageous".
"This should make young people mad at those whose policies over the years have resulted in the murder of higher education today in Lebanon. Precisely because the country is falling apart, education should be more accessible, not less. Subsidise it, like fuel or wheat," he said.
“I wrote to my students about exams, of course, I had to also write about the news this morning. Writing to students who in the coming days and weeks will be forced to abandon their studies, this is the most gut-wrenching feeling you can ever have as a teacher.”