The presidents of Israel’s universities and one of its larger colleges on Monday petitioned the High Court of Justice to overturn a decision granting Ariel University Center (AUC) official status as a university.
The petitioners argued that the decision had been unreasonable according to any relevant criteria and had been made by the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria, a body with no jurisdiction in the matter.
The move contradicted the position of the Council of Higher Education of Israel.
The petition was filed against a number of organizations, including the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria, the head of the IDF’s Central Command, the Israeli government, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
AUC remains without official university status. Since Ariel is in the West Bank, which is under the IDF’s authority, the signature of OC Central Command Maj.- Gen. Nitzan Alon is required.
However, Alon can sign only after receiving instructions from Barak, and the defense minister has yet to issue any directives in the matter.
The petitioners argue that the decision to grant AUC university status was ridden with defects and will affect the entire system of higher education, both academically and in terms of budget allocations.
“The council’s decision was seriously flawed in its legality and its logic,” the petition says. “The decision was sewn together over the course of three years.”
It takes the Judea and Samaria council’s decision to task for ignoring the professional judgment and position of both the Council of Higher Education for all of Israel’s universities and the head of the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council of Higher Education – generally the ultimate decision-maker on granting an institution university status due to its control of academic budgets.
The university heads contend that since the budget committee concluded there was no need for a new Israeli university, AUC should not receive exceptional treatment. Moreover, they argue that Israel’s higher education scene has been in crisis for a decade in terms of financing, an issue that has significantly harmed the ability of universities to perform research and other functions at competitive levels internationally.
The petition says the financial crisis has led to brain-drain, with some of Israel’s brightest students and researchers choosing to study abroad. It adds that even if the Judea and Samaria council had the jurisdiction to make AUC a university against the position of the Council of Higher Education, the criteria it used were unreasonable.
The petition says the criteria compared AUC only to the goals it created for itself, and not to other Israeli or international universities, and emphasized quantity and a bland list of factors divorced from wrestling with the holistic question of whether AUC really deserved to be a university.
The president of Hebrew University, Prof. Menahem Ben-Sasson, referred to the financial crisis in the academic sphere by saying the state would need to add billions to the budget, both for the entire academic community and for a new university, as the $50 million Steinitz had promised would not be sufficient.
Ben-Sasson also said that if Israel were going to add a new university, at least five other quality schools should be ahead of AUC. He stated that the move had both undermined solidarity among Israeli universities and caused problems for Israeli universities in relation to universities abroad.
AUC responded in a statement accusing the university heads of trying to undermine a decision of Attorney- General Yehuda Weinstein, who ratified the Judea and Samaria council’s decision as legal.
According to AUC, the attorney-general’s approval as the highest executive legal officer in the country should have ended the debate. AUC said it had fulfilled all requirements according to law and academic criteria.
The statement slammed the Council of Higher Education as a “cartel” attempting to preserve its hegemony over higher education in Israel and preventing newer institutions from competing in research, pursuing knowledge and receiving budgetary resources.
AUC added that its achievements, its student body of 13,000 and its hundreds of academics were “a fact that could not be ignored” and that the petition “would not be able to turn back the clock.”
Eli Ayalon, an AUC director and head of its university recognition process, said the petition was shocking in that it specifically said a Hebrewspeaking university was not needed in the Ariel area.
Ayalon objected to criticism of the procedures, saying the five-year process had been public, the government had checked into the issue in 2005, and the attorney-general had authorized the Judea and Samaria council to lead the process. The process had included the Council of Higher Education, which, he charged, simply did not like the result.
MK Danny Danon (Likud) slammed the petition, calling it “a cheap politicization of the academic world.”
“It seems the heads of universities need a lesson in civics,” Danon said. “The university heads, who hold extreme leftist opinions, are trying to co-opt authority through the courts.”
Barak approved upgrading Ariel’s status from college to university in 2010. Rightwing MKs have slammed him for delaying implementation, accusing him of having ulterior motives and promoting his own political agenda.
Israel’s largest public college, AUC was founded in 1982 as a branch of Bar-Ilan University but became independent in 2004 when it began to seek university status.
Eighty-five percent of its students live within the Green Line.
Joanna Parasczcuk contributed to this report.