“We won’t leave, let her leave,” chanted hundreds of students, staff and faculty at the American University in Cairo (AUC) last week as they protested against university president Lisa Anderson and her administration. Three days later, around 2,500 members of the university community voted to impeach Anderson’s administration in a student-organized referendum.
The AUC community has voiced mounting concerns against recent austerity measures that were implemented after 2011, which the university says are intended to close a significant budget deficit. In multiple meetings with the administration, AUC stakeholders have argued against the escalating salary cuts, rising tuition fees, layoffs of 20 percent of staff, the sale of university property, severe restrictions on financial benefits for workers, and the demise of merit-based scholarships for undergraduate students. According to student leaders, most of these decisions were arbitrarily made without first consulting the AUC community.
A student movement is emerging around the institutional politics of private university campuses across Egypt — a divergence from public universities, where student movements have mostly been linked to political parties and groups, turning those universities into a battlefield in the conflict between the ousted Muslim Brotherhood and the country’s current leaders since 2013. At least 15 public university students have died in clashes with security forces since 2013, and hundreds of others have been arrested and suspended.
A battle over finances at AUC
AUC student union leaders revealed in a general meeting what they called the administration’s “lies” to the community regarding the school’s budget deficit. Students said they accessed the Form 990 document presented to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which reflected the university’s operating budget and its earnings from investments in the university’s endowments. According to the document, AUC had a budget surplus of US$15 million in 2012.
The student union explained that AUC’s endowment, which currently adds up to around $500 million, consists of a deposit paid by USAID, investments that AUC runs in the US, as well as grants given to AUC as an educational institution. Every year, the university’s board of trustees meets to decide how much of the endowment’s returns are needed to support the university’s operational budget. The rest of the returns are added back into the endowment.
The surplus is a result of adding annual revenues from the university’s endowment investments to AUC’s operational budget, which as it stands, is facing a deficit. According to AUC’s fact book, the university suffered a deficit of around $8 million in 2011 and 2012, but managed to balance its budget in 2013 and 2014 thanks to the new austerity measures. Aside from the endowment revenues, sources of income for the operational budget include, among others, student tuition fees, research and sponsorship fees, auxiliaries and adult education revenues.
Students accuse the administration of adamantly refusing to dip into their investment revenues to plug the deficit in the operational budget.
Student Union Vice President Hassaballah al-Kafrawy claims that the administration has refused to do so because it’s striving to grow the university’s endowment from $50 million to $1 billion by continually returning all accrued interest back into the endowment. He chastises the administration for choosing to accumulate wealth at the detriment of preserving quality education.
During an on-campus protest, students demanded better access to information on the university’s financial situation, and greater transparency in the decision-making process by setting up a governance committee formed from students, faculty and staff. The committee would discuss university matters with the board of trustees, and intervene whenever decisions contradict the interests of the community.
“We have been always told during meetings with the administration that if we don’t like AUC, we should go somewhere else. I’m sorry, I’m a stakeholder. I stay here, I make the decisions, because at the end of the day, these decisions affect me. I won’t leave. If you [the administration] don’t like managing us, you leave,” Kafrawy told his fellow students while speaking at the university’s New Cairo campus last week. Fellow students cheered and chanted, “We won’t leave, she leaves,” referring to Anderson in a mimicry of the seminal revolutionary chants against former President Hosni Mubarak in January 2011.
Hundreds of angry students then marched to the administration’s building, located close to Anderson’s office. The community then started a partial strike, in which students declared a boycott on paying parking and bus fees. With the collaboration of security and staff members, student union representatives helped members of the community to pass through the campus gates without swiping their identification cards.
The purported deficit has significantly impacted the university’s workers, prompting them to collaborate with the students in the strike. One worker, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear for his job, has been on a temporary contract with the university’s maintenance department for the past eight years. He alleges that, “In the name of budget deficit, the administration has been cutting off our salaries and benefits for the last four years. I thought of travelling to work in the Gulf, but I cannot afford the thousands it takes to get the visa and the ticket. The AUC administration is killing our dreams inside the university, and outside of it.”
In response to the movement, the administration said that the student union’s referendum does not represent any formal electorate and is not legally binding. However, the administration said that it values freedom of expression, and called upon the community to open more “channels of communication and dialogue.”
“The vote was organized by the student union in reaction to allegations that the budget deficit facing the university since 2011 was not genuine. These claims were mounted as a result of a misunderstanding of the difference between the university’s public tax records, which are readily available online, and the university’s budget information, which is posted on the university website,” the administration said in an email statement.
“The university is forecasting a balanced budget and a restoration of modest increase in salaries in the fiscal year that starts in July 2015,” the statement added.
According to an explanation that the administration posted on the university website, AUC’s budget information only represents the difference between revenues and expenditure, while public tax records include operating budget information as well as returns from the endowment.
“The documents show that there are investment returns. A deficit is not determined based on investment returns or assets. It is determined from the operating statement that shows expenses and revenues in a given year,” university leaders clarified.
In addition, the university also denied claims that it seeks to raise its endowment to $1 billion.
“As a first priority, AUC needs to address its continuing budget deficit and its causes. Efforts to fundraise for the university will benefit the endowment, and a larger endowment would contribute larger funds to the operating budget each year,” the statement asserted.
Students strike after death in GUC parking lot
The current tensions at AUC come on the heels of a similar wave of anger that overtook the German University in Cairo (GUC) earlier this month, when hundreds of students protested what they described as the university’s deteriorating security and maintenance system that ultimately led to the death of 19-year-old engineering student Yara Negm.
Negm died in the campus parking lot on March 9 when a school bus backed up and pinned her against another bus. She bled to death before an ambulance arrived on the scene.
For three days after the incident, GUC students collectively boycotted their midterm exams until the university would agree to take swift measures to deal with its allegedly dysfunctional maintenance system. Students demanded holding those responsible for student security accountable for Negm’s death, overhauling the campus parking lot, installing sensors in the buses and stationing ambulances around campus, the GUC student newspaper reported. The students also called for a number of new safety procedures, such as regular evacuation drills and establishing an emergency hotline.
As a result of overwhelming support for the strike, the GUC administration agreed to meet with student union representatives, and pledged to reform its maintenance system and better communicate with the students. Following the meeting, the student union declared an end to the strike.
Student leaders from several different private and public universities voiced their support for the GUC strike, in a move that many hoped could represent a beacon of hope for a nationwide student movement.
But the current wave of activism in private universities is not new, and has several precedents at different schools, including AUC, GUC and others. While actions at public universities are often tied to the broader politics outside campus gates, the emerging activism at private universities has tended to question the cost of paying for education.
Misr International University (MIU) student leader Mahmoud Haitham says that students at private universities are a tool in the hands of university leaders to keep the wheel of their business running.
“Administrations believe that we are kids who should not have a say in university matters. We are always told we can leave if we don’t like how the university is run,” he says.
For Haitham, there is no possible balance between business and education. “Business always wins,” he says.
In 2012, MIU students protested against the death of student Antoine Sameh, who was fatally hit by a speeding truck in front of the campus while waiting for a microbus. Students argued that for the past two years they had asked the university to build a pedestrian bridge in the area to prevent recurring road accidents. The administration had said they were legally unable to do so, but eventually built the bridge in 2014. It was named in Sameh’s memory.
Amal Abou Setta, a PhD candidate in educational research at Lancaster University, believes that mounting anger at private universities is a natural result of the commodification of education.
“Education has been transformed into a commodity, and the commodity provider gives it in the shape it wants,” she asserts, adding that she hopes the current movement could help to change this dynamic.
Facing different struggles, public university students stand in solidarity
Though their purported aims may be different, ongoing movements at private universities have not been taking place in total isolation from public universities.
Ahmed Khalaf, student union president for the Cairo University Faculty of Economics and Political Science, says he was reenergized when he saw his old friends from the MIU, AUC, and other private universities at the GUC strike. Khalaf was part of a delegation representing state universities to show solidarity with the GUC students.
Khalaf believes that recent actions at AUC, GUC and MIU contrast with stagnating student activism and anemic academic freedoms at public universities, the result of two bloody years of clashes with security forces after the ouster of former Islamist President Mohamed Morsi in 2013. Younger generations entering public universities today see no activism, having missed the revolution on campus, he claims.
“Current students did not see the revolution. They just saw blood and oppression working very well to silence the student movement,” says Khalaf. “GUC and AUC’s actions are showing the newcomers that universities are not just a place to get educated; they’re a place to voice concerns, to believe in their agency and to grow intellectually.”
For him, the focus on institutional failures inside private universities is helping the student movement there to flourish, away from the polarized politics of the government versus Islamists.
Private universities “don’t have a strong Muslim Brotherhood presence to scare the government,” Khalaf explains, “and they don’t have security on campus. They have nothing to fear.”