Khaled Musallam, 24, studied media at Gaza’s Al-Aqsa University and graduated two years ago. But he never received his diploma.
“After graduating I went to the students affairs office to get my diploma,” Musallam said. “But they said that I couldn’t, that I owed $810.”
Musallam’s student debt – and the diploma withheld as a result – has also prevented him from finding work or pursuing a higher degree. And it is a predicament that increasing numbers of young people in the impoverished coastal enclave find themselves in.
Malak Abu Dan, 25, studied business administration at the University of Palestine and graduated the same year as Musallam. With an $680 bill for outstanding fees, she too is in limbo with no diploma.
“I do not have the money to pay; you know the situation is generally bad in Gaza. I tried to get it, but all my attempts went in vain,” she added.
“I don’t know what to do”
Abu Dan is in a double bind. She wants to find work to pay off her debt, but needs a diploma to do so.
“You rarely find jobs in Gaza. In the last two years, there were opportunities, but they require a diploma. I don’t know what to do.”
Unlike in many other countries, academic diplomas can be withheld as a result of outstanding student debt, said Ayman al-Yazuri, assistant deputy of higher education at Gaza’s education ministry.
Debt is also hard to avoid for those pursuing an education. Business administration graduate Muhib al-Haddad, 25, applied for a grant to cover some of his outstanding fees at Al-Aqsa University.
But the university has set strict criteria for grant eligibility, requiring that graduates demonstrate both need and a high cumulative grade point average. Al-Haddad didn’t qualify, something he conceded he had expected.
“When you look at the thousands of graduates in those years, who are waiting for such a grant to help them get their certificates, your chance will be negligible.”
Rami Khatib heads the board of directors of the Palestinian Zakat Institution, a charity which partners with five universities to provide grants to recent graduates like Haddad.
The Zakat institution has contributed $100,000 to the project, which has a budget of $250,000, according to Khatib. The rest is shouldered by the partner universities.
“This project was necessary in light of the increasing numbers of students in need of their diplomas, unable to join the labor market,” he said.
Riad Abu Zanad, the dean of student affairs at Al-Aqsa University, said that 17,000 graduates haven’t received their degrees because they still owe money to the school, despite various forms of financial assistance offered to students.
Full tuition is awarded to the children of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces and those imprisoned by Israel, according to Abu Zanad, and the school also offers assistance to students who demonstrate financial need.
He added that 140 recent graduates from Al-Aqsa will benefit from the Zakat institution grant, receiving around $280 each. Responsibility for the remaining tuition balance – total annual tuition, according to the ministry of education, averages at $700 per student at state universities – is split between the university and the student, Abu Zanad said.
Given the high levels of unemployment and sharply increased poverty in Gaza, however, need is greater than the resources available to students and recent graduates.
“We call on all business leaders, government bodies and entrepreneurs to work on solving the problem of graduates’ certificates and provide them with financial support so they can get their diplomas,” Abu Zanad said.
The education ministry’s al-Yazuri acknowledged the “real crisis” that universities are withholding the diplomas of more than 20,000 recent graduates.
Al-Yazuri said the situation is borne of the dire economic situation in Gaza, which has made it harder for families to pay for tuition, despite education being highly valued in Palestinian society.
More than half of Gaza’s public universities’ budgets are covered by tuition fees, according to al-Yazuri.
“Students cannot pay university fees in full, so they are forced to pay by installments,” creating a deficit in school budgets, al-Yazuri said. “Universities are in financial crisis.”
Al-Yazuri also pointed to budget cuts by the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.
“Nine public universities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip need about 70 million Jordanian dinars [approximately $98 million] annually to improve their work,” al-Yazuri told The Electronic Intifada. But the Palestinian Authority paid only approximately $8.5 million to public universities in 2016, he said.
Universities in Gaza have also seen a decline in enrollment, and thus tuition revenue.
“In 2015, 95,000 students were registered at the universities, while in 2016 only 90,000 students were registered. The number declined in 2017 to 86,000 students,” al-Yazuri said.
The withholding of diplomas is just another way that ambitious young people in Gaza find their futures being hemmed in.
Ahmad al-Haw, who graduated from Al-Aqsa University in 2015, still hopes to get his certificate so he can pursue scholarships for postgraduate study outside Gaza.
“I graduated from university, and I was looking forward to traveling and getting a scholarship abroad, because job opportunities in the Gaza Strip are virtually nonexistent,” he told The Electronic Intifada.
He said he has found scholarships for study in a wide range of countries, “but I could not apply to them, because I do not have a university certificate.”
Jehad Ewais is a freelance journalist based in Gaza.