In an email sent to the student body on Aug. 20, Vice Chancellor Mariët Westermann and Chief Administrative and Business Officer Peter Christensen announced that due to a recent change in government policy, the method of distribution of personal stipends, promised to most of the student body upon admission, would change. The email emphasized, however, that the support and amount of the awards would remain the same. Westermann further explained that the change in stipend disbursement was not a result of budget constraints or any change in NYU Abu Dhabi’s relationship with the UAE government, insisting that “financial aid has not changed and will remain consistent with the level of support [the student] received last year.”
Two days later, Student Finance outlined the details of these changes for the student body: the stipend would now be disbursed through a combination of Campus Dirhams and a “special provisions” process that will come in the form of direct payment to specific, university-approved vendors.
Hence in one communication, less than ten days before the start of the semester, the financial freedom and security of liquid cash was replaced by an approval-based process, limited to select vendors that are still being expanded.
News reporters at The Gazelle attempted to search for the policy cited in the email in official Abu Dhabi Gazette pages and Ministry of Education databases, but were unable to find any official documentation. In an email statement to The Gazelle, Kate Chandler, Acting Assistant Vice Chancellor of External Relations, shared that while the directive was “communicated to universities across the UAE, [it] has not, to [their] knowledge, been published publicly.”
Student Responses to the Announcement
Following the email, a range of student concerns erupted in private student forums. In response, Sobha Gadi, Class of 2021, drafted a petition signed by over 350 students calling for reforms to the student assistantship model in an attempt to ameliorate this policy’s financial impact on the most vulnerable students. Gadi highlighted the payment schedule – historically in arrears – and relatively low wages as areas of improvement. He penned a letter
addressed to the administration.
Gadi stated that changes in the student assistantship model might “not alleviate all of the hardships wrought on our most financially vulnerable peers but it is our hope that they will go some way towards doing that.” Since then, Senior Leadership has replied to the petition assuring every signatory that their concerns were taken seriously, and that student needs would be met. The administration has communicated to The Gazelle that student finance is exploring increasing wages from USD 8.17 to USD 12 an hour, in an attempt to match NYU and Global Network compensation after taxes. In addition, sources on background have indicated that fortnightly payments of our student assistantships are currently under review.
Grace Bechdol, Class of 2023, created a spreadsheet
comparing prices of products sold at our on-campus Bluemart to their equivalent at Lulu’s Hypermarket, highlighting an alleged disparity in regular market pricing and our convenience store pricing for certain products. Bechdol’s investigation was a result of one of the most persistent student claims: that Campus Dirhams, initially replacing 50 percent of our stipend disbursed via Wirecard, did not possess the same purchasing power as regular money, rendering the change an unfair one.
Chandler addressed this issue in an email, stating that “concerns about cost and variety on-campus were recognized and that the university would be following up on such concerns with campus vendors where appropriate.”
Zoom Forums and Unanswered Questions
In response to other pressing student concerns, such as our lost ability to save up for the future or to send money back home, NYUAD’s Student Government organized a virtual forum with Senior Leadership on Aug. 26. With almost 300 attendees, the forum was a space to share frustrations, anxieties and profoundly emotional concerns regarding financial stability and independence. Some of the most persistent questions concerned the difference in what was communicated to Emirati students, who since the university’s inception had all been on full merit scholarships regardless of background, and are now required to submit a CSS profile and receive aid based on financial need. To these questions, Senior Leadership lacked concrete answers, but promised a student forum exclusively to provide answers for UAE nationals, which later took place on Aug. 29.
Jude Al Qubaisi, Class of 2021, brought up how different communication to the UAE nationals exacerbated an already existing divide between Emirati locals and the rest of the student body. During the forum, she strongly advocated for clarity and transparency as to how these changes affected Emiratis more dramatically.
“This form of communication is not beneficial to either party,” Al Quibaisi stated.“If the university included us in the general emails that would be a lot better for the whole student body.” Later, Al Quibaisi urged the entire student body, not just Emiratis, to show up for the forum dealing with their concerns.
Furthermore, according to the panelists, delays and changes in our financial aid awards have occured due to an unusual semester, with many students taking reduced credit hours, remote classes or having opted for the Go Local option. The panelists also addressed the financial aid appeals process and stated that the Financial Aid Office was working on it and would soon make it available to students.
The forum also revealed a preliminary interface for the “special provisions” form which will be used to approve “up to” a full stipend amount to cover “transportation, technology, food, school supplies, personal care items, communications such as phone credit or phone cards, interview/professional clothes and medical costs not covered by insurance.” The form will ask students to state their place of residence, what they intend to use the stipend for and what amount of money they estimate they will need. There was also an assurance of privacy in terms of items purchased. On this issue, Chandler assured flexibility on the part of the university, all while staying “within the provisions of the new directive.” More information on the panel is accessible to members of the NYUAD community through Student Government’s minutes here
Looking Forward: What Now?
Later on Aug. 27, Chandler informed The Gazelle of changes being made to the previous mechanism introduced. Chandler credits this change to “considerable and valuable feedback from students.” Part of the changes being considered, promised to be carried out with Student Government input, is a change in the allocation of the stipend from 50 percent campus dirhams and 50 percent special provisions to a 25 percent and 75 percent model, allowing students to spend their funds mostly off-campus thus granting a larger degree of financial independence. The question of where will students be able to spend the funds granted for special provisions through a multi-vendor card remains, but the administration has promised to release a preliminary list soon.
While the student body attempts to find its bearings adjusting to such a drastic decision, many questions remain unanswered, chief amongst them being the problem of disproportionate access to approved vendors that students off-campus and scattered in more provincial and remote home-bases would face. Since the release of this new policy change, the university has remained responsive and alert to student concerns, however what they have planned for low-income students, those who might not have easy access to a wide range of vendors at home, or who may be facing extraneous housing instability remains to be seen.
Mari Velasquez-Soler is News Editor. Email her at email@example.com.