Illustration by Tom Abi Samra

Letter from the Editors: Financial Freedom Was Always Part of The Deal

The change in the way our student stipends are being disbursed will fundamentally shift class dynamics on campus, hardening inequities that already ran deep.

Financial freedom is undeniably a privilege in the world outside Saadiyat, where people’s ability to pursue academic, professional and personal aspirations is limited by scarcity and inequality. But with admission to NYU Abu Dhabi came a promise of a radical new model of higher education; one that would allow us to imagine a world where our income backgrounds would not affect our ability to thrive in our undergraduate life.
On Aug. 20, merely two weeks before one of the most trying semesters of our undergraduate careers, the NYUAD student body received an email from Vice Chancellor Mariët Westermann and Chief Administrative and Business Officer Peter Christensen announcing changes in the disbursement of personal stipends. We would no longer directly receive the money transfers promised to us upon admission, and instead will receive our stipend through a combination of campus dirhams and through external vendors decided without our prior consultation.
At a time when anxiety and uncertainty already held sway over a scattered student body, this email sent shockwaves across the community.
This change will fundamentally shift class dynamics on campus, hardening inequities that already ran deep. Some will merely have to fall back to their families for leisure and travel, while the most vulnerable students — those who cannot rely on their families for sustenance — will lose invaluable financial security and the ability to plan for the future.
Receiving funds for personal expenses through Wirecard allowed students to consider long-term needs, prepare for emergencies and respond quickly and independently to an ever-shifting world. It allowed some to strive for self-determination in the face of domestic abuse; for others, it provided the freedom to study in peace knowing bills were paid and siblings fed. Receiving flexible funds conferred on us the freedom to make rational and profoundly personal decisions on our most immediate priorities. This financial freedom has been a core tenet of the NYUAD experience. It has enabled our campus to flourish into what it is today.
The disbursement of stipend as we knew it paved the way for socioeconomic diversity in our own newsroom, on the football pitch, in our labs and our music rooms. It allowed us to volunteer to help those in need, take part in cutting-edge research, build social enterprises and pursue passion projects without second and third jobs weighing us down. It let many of us pay for rent, flights and cabs, both within and outside the UAE, allowing us to pursue opportunities that turned into jobs, vastly improving social mobility. It also allowed many to rest without restriction.
Under the new system, students living on campus would receive 50 percent of the previously distributed out-of-pocket expenses through campus dirhams. The rest will be allocated through a special provisions process that requires us to state our needs for the rest of the semester in early September. With campus dirhams expiring at the end of the year and a limited number of vendors to spend them on, we are left with no financial freedom, and a system ill-suited for emergency circumstances.
Perhaps most disappointing is that the university has failed to recognize this precarity. Despite some students starting to hear about changes to their financial aid as early as July, this nebulous decision was communicated just two weeks before the beginning of the semester, with little clarity on the mechanism of the new disbursal system. The student body was not consulted in the process and there was little effort to acknowledge the damaging consequences of this decision. While we understand the challenges faced by the administration, the least we can expect is clear, empathetic and timely communication.
The Editorial Board recognizes that the decision to transition away from disbursing stipends and student support via Wirecard lies within the discretion of the Abu Dhabi government — not the university’s administration. We honor and respect that decision. But if the current system must go, it is only our right that we ask from NYUAD new provisions and protections.
For years, NYUAD students have accepted lower hourly wages — $8.17 at NYUAD versus $15 in NYU New York — largely due to the financial flexibility afforded by the stipend. With a decreasing number of students on full financial aid and housing and tuition costs on par with New York, we ask for negotiations on the terms of the work limitations of our student visas, and institutional support to expand our ability to earn on campus.
We need better wages. We need to be allowed to work longer and better paid hours. We need to be compensated, not in arrears but every two to four weeks, as is the norm at NYU and across the Global Network. We need more opportunities to work, remotely for now, and on campus in the future. We need a Career Development Center responsive to the gaps we can no longer fill. We need spaces where low-income students can be heard. And we need clarity and transparency in decision-making going forward.
Gratitude and accountability are not mutually exclusive. We are profoundly grateful for the life NYUAD has given us. But just as NYUAD has generously invested in us, we have also invested in NYUAD. From the first graduating class at Sama Tower to the class that bravely entered a post-graduate world amid a pandemic, we have tirelessly researched, innovated, created and built from the ground up; all to create an institution we are proud of. Today, from NYUAD we ask: listen to us.
We’re angry — and we’re scared. Although our campus was never immune to inequality, the stipend has always been NYUAD’s greatest, if far-from-perfect, equalizer. And now for many of us, the future of our financial safety hangs by a thread.
This piece was written by the senior-most editorial board of The Gazelle. It does not necessarily represent the individual views of the rest of its staff or the entire student body.
Kaashif Hajee and Laura Assanmal are Editors in Chief, and Abhyudaya Tyagi, Dylan Palladino and Ari Hawkins are Managing Editors. Email them at
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