Not all AUC students are rich
Protests about rising tuition fees at Egypt's elite university challenge misconceptions about the student body
AUC students protest tuition fee increases

Protests held at the American University in Cairo in November in response to a sudden hike in tuition fees were the source of astonishment for many Egyptians, who could not understand how the “kids of rich people” were also affected by economic turmoil following the liberalization of the currency exchange rate in November.

These demonstrations not only challenged stereotypes about the university and its students, but also reflected a significant change in the nature of its community, as hundreds of students chanted: “My father is not a thief,” in reference to their families’ inability to continue paying extremely expensive tuition fees, which are expected to witness a 30 percent jump next year.

The administration announced that it will receive the last tuition instalment for the fall semester according to the exchange rate before the Egyptian pound was floated, which it says will cost the university $1 million in losses. 

Greater diversity at Egypt’s elite school

Hend al-Taher, who studied at AUC on scholarship as an undergraduate in 2006 and as a graduate student in 2015, says the community’s views of students on scholarship have changed drastically since she first enrolled.

She remembers the sense of estrangement she felt when she first joined AUC, with many students looking at her as an outsider.

“There was this classist look, which made me feel very small. Everyone tried to make me feel that I needed to work really hard in order to have the right to be here,” she says. “Some of my friends heard comments about the way they dressed, the way they spoke, the way they ate, and about their hijab.” 

From Qena, Taher enrolled at AUC through the LEAD program, a scholarship financed by USAID that ran from 2004 to 2012, and which accepted one male and one female student from every governorate in the country based on their high-school academic achievement, among other factors. Although only around 450 students have graduated from the program, it is seen to have opened doors to similar programs being made available in Egypt’s second oldest university.

Established in 1919, AUC is the only university in Egypt that ranks among the top 500 universities worldwide. In 2016, AUC was ranked 365 internationally, while Cairo University fell to the 551-600 band. Ben Sowter, head of research at Quacquarelli Symonds’ World University Rankings, told Mada Masr in September that AUC is the only Egyptian university in the world’s top 800 schools for citations per faculty.

Although Taher entered AUC based on academic merit, she felt she was under a lot of pressure nonetheless.

“This was mostly due to my English. Imagine everyone around you speaking, thinking and dreaming in English, while I was struggling to understand what the professor said in class,” she recounts. “It was killing me, and it was difficult to adapt. There was this pressure to reach a certain proficiency in order to feel I was entitled to be there.”

While studying for her master’s degree in journalism and mass communication in 2015 as part of the Youssef Jameel scholarship, however, Taher did not feel she needed to prove she had a right to be at AUC anymore. “There are people who still judge you according to your social class, but these are a minority now. Students have become more respectful and understanding, and it’s definitely due to the changing economic situation, in which more students are in need of scholarships to finance their education.”

Despite this attitude shift within the student body, other negative views of scholarship recipients have surfaced. In one conversation on a private Facebook group discussing recent protests at the university, students mocked scholarship students, who are perceived as not having to worry as much about expensive tuition costs. This pushed scholarship student Bassant Zain Eddin to write an article for student newspaper The Caravan countering this opinion and showing her support for the student movement, arguing that “scholarship students are an integral part of the student body, and the impression of us as ‘luxury students’ is hurting us, because simply it’s not the case.”

In a 2015 report, the university states that the number of students applying for financial aid — in the form of tuition cuts or scholarships — is on the rise, costing the university US$288 million annually. The report indicated that 60 percent of AUC students depend on the program to cover tuition, while 25 percent rely on achievement awards.

The university currently hosts 5,000 students, and some of Egypt’s most prominent public figures are among its alumni, further cementing its reputation as the school of the elite. These include former Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy, head of the National Council for Women Maya Morsy, TV anchor Lamis al-Hadidy, and the sons of former President Hosni Mubarak, Alaa and Gamal.

Professor of educational history at AUC, Farida Makar, says that because the upper class have started sending their children to study abroad — and thus AUC is no longer necessarily the elite’s first option — a space has opened up within the university for students from different social classes.

She explains that the financial aid scheme enabled graduates of high schools of moderate tuition to enrol. During her journey as a student and, later, as a professor, Makar has observed attempts by the university administration toward building a more diverse student body by attracting more scholarship students.

Makar adds that many students, herself included, would not have been able to attend AUC without these financial aid programs and scholarships. “I remember that the deadline for the financial aid application was always an important day for many students. We were always critical of the expensive prices of textbooks and looking for alternatives.”

Laila Qoutry, a graduate of the class of ’91, only paid 25 percent of tuition fees at the time, due to her academic performance in high school. Qoutry says that despite the fact that tuition was expensive compared to the level of income, fees were generally affordable for upper-middle class families.

Describing her time at AUC, she reckons that about a quarter of the student body came from families of professionals from the upper-middle class, not businessmen, those who had savings that enabled them to pay tuition fees with the help of financial aid. There were also those whose parents worked in the Gulf.

She also noted that a similar percentage included Palestinian students, who came to study at AUC during the first Palestinian Intifada, which created a space for a strong student movement supporting the Palestinian cause.

At the time Qoutry was studying, more female students were veiled, a trend that started to pick up in Egypt in the 1980s. “The university was never separate from the social change happening outside of it, even if there was a different dominant culture within it due to the unique educational system or the different social classes that attended. There was still diversity.”

The university moved to a new campus in 2008 in an expansion plan, given the old campus’ inability to host the increasing number of students. The move, however, was criticized for alienating the university from the social space that it once actively occupied. It was also deemed as very costly, with the $400 million campus pushing the university into a severe budget deficit in the years that followed.

Students’ futures have become increasingly precarious

Tuition increases have gone through different phases, the most recent of which was in the wake of the 2008 move, to offset a widening budget deficit. In 2015, AUC announced that it would no longer offer merit-based scholarships in order to meet the increasing demand for financial aid.

When Makar was a student, she remembers that families could afford to pay for tuition, which she now believes has become increasingly impossible. With recent tuition increases and the removal of achievement awards, she says many students have traveled abroad to countries that offer better education at more reasonable prices, such as Germany.

Anthropology junior Alya al-Marakby believes that the university definitely includes the children of Egypt’s richest families, but they do not make up the majority of AUC students anymore. She sees that, over time, the university has attracted more students — herself included — who come from different backgrounds.

“These families spend all that they have to offer their children good education,” she says.

Marakby receives financial aid that helps her secure a moderate deduction in fees, paying LE50,000 instead of LE80,000 per semester, but she fears she will not be able to continue paying if the new exchange rate is applied next year. Students are required to pay half of their tuition in US dollars or the equivalent in Egyptian pounds, a current source of major discontent among students.

“Many students are enrolled at AUC because it offers the best education in Egypt, and it has educational programs that are one of a kind in the country, just like the department in which I study,” she says. “Those outside the university do not understand that there are a lot of families who put their children’s education as a top priority, one which they sacrifice many luxuries and necessities for.”

Marakby says that many families have to sell property or other assets in order to pay for tuition. In some cases, families have to spend years working in the Gulf to afford it.

“This could be literally all they own. So when tuition fees rise sharply to almost a quarter of a million pounds annually, it is normal that students will protest, because many of them see their educational future on the line, and know that they may no longer be able to continue studying there,” she adds.

The university announced a US$5 million “emergency grant scheme” for students unable to pay tuition for the spring semester, in order to ensure that currently enrolled students are not forced to drop out.

Marakby plans to apply to this grant scheme next spring, but she still has no idea how she will afford to pay for her last year at school. “I may have to transfer to another university, or I may travel to Germany due to the more affordable tuition costs there. But I’m not sure if I will be able to transfer course credits,” she says. “There is an atmosphere of worry and uncertainty about our future.”

She also says that the recent strikes cannot be divorced from other demands made by students on campus related to increasing salaries of staff and workers, who have been hit hard by the economic crisis and the severe austerity measures imposed by the university as a result.

“Everyone on campus is affected by these decisions, and we were aware that our protests would draw a lot of criticism as a result of stereotypes about AUC students,” she says. “But all these views are simply not true.”

Mai Shams El-Din 

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