Guest post by Mr X, a resident in Cairo
The scenes of the blockade of the American University in Cairo by a group of students angry about proposed tuition hikes are hard to watch without cringing.
What should be a legitimate grievance aired by intelligent students is beginning to look like a mutation of the revolutionary spirit that helped bring down the regime of Hosni Mubarak into a hideous display of self-interest and disrespect for the majority of students and faculty who are now being prevented from entering campus.
The rising cost of higher education – especially at private institutions – is a problem across the world, caused by a combination of increased demand, rising inflation and university administrations hiring “star professors” to raise their rankings.
AUC’s vast, new campus in New Cairo has made it even more pressing for the administration to raise fees to pay back the debt it took out to build the satellite campus. Another reason for rising costs? The awarding of scholarships to highly qualified students without the means to pay the full price tag of four years at AUC.
In fact, AUC’s planned 7% tuition hike is in line with the global trend of private universities, especially in the US.
However, just because something is part of a global phenomenon doesn’t mean you have to like it or sit idly.
Of all the protestors’ demands, the calls for transparency and tuition caps are the most important. Students and their families have the right to know why costs are rising in more detail and they should be given forewarning about major increases on the horizon. It is also would not be fair for a student to have to leave the university mid-way through because it has suddenly become much more expensive than it was when they entered.
But the ends don’t always justify the means.
The blockade at the gates of the university is a thuggish move and counter-productive because it has created a poisonous environment on campus. (It also prevents emergency vehicles from entering the campus, which is a major security and health risk). AUC has responded by suspending classes until further notice.
There are presumably some intelligent students who have thought long and hard about their grievances, but they have been quickly overshadowed by anarchist layabouts with fancy cars.
This video shows one such misguided organiser.
The unidentified strike leader first of all shows a stark lack of understanding of how the university works, complaining that the tuition of the university is being used to “keep their deficit away”.
If the university did not have a campus, then it would not be paying back debt. But where would he go to classes if there were no classrooms? Tuition goes toward many expenses: faculty and staff, science labs and sports facilities, services and scholarships.
Indeed, more than 60 per cent of students at AUC receive some form of financial aid. Cut tuition costs unilaterally and you may well reduce the scholarship funds available to needier students.
Transcript of video: “The student movement will not stop. The gates are closed until further notice, or in other words, until our demands are met. We are not going to stop what we are doing. They are stealing our money. They are telling us that the 7% increase is only about the inflation of the country. And, in fact, it is about the deficit they are having. They want to collect our money to keep their deficit away. This is not accepted. The dictatorship is no longer available in Egypt. We are bringing the revolution inside the constitution and we are going to get this corrupt system down. Us the student movement are being beaten up, we are being suspended, just because we are calling for our rights.”
The greatest risk for the Occupy AUC movement is that they completely de-legitimize the good part of their cause: transparency and tuition relief. A good portion of students and alumni are against the blockade and professors – some sympathetic to the root cause of the strike – are becoming increasingly angry because of the impact on their livelihoods.
Escalation of tactics should not come lightly. When a major union deliberates over holding a strike, they hold a vote among union members. What portion of the student body really wanted to block the entrances to the campus? Is this act convincing sceptics?
The Occupy AUC movement has largely skipped consensus building, fact-finding, and dialogue with members of the board. The end result is they have possibly torpedoed their cause before it could properly get started and created ill will against them from the very population they needed to convince about their grievances.