The best, the brightest... the self-centered

What student strikers were proposing was that those who could easily afford higher tuition be subsidized at the expense of the less well-off.

May 30, 2007 18:42
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The university students' 41-day strike, which ended last week, may seem unrelated to rocket barrages on Sderot. Yet in fact, it does much to explain the ongoing national indifference to Sderot's sufferings. The students were protesting the establishment of a public committee on reforming higher education. The Shochat Committee is widely expected to recommend tuition hikes, whereas the strikers want tuition lowered. As a pretext for a strike, this was farcical. Tuition at public institutions is currently very low, at NIS 8,383 last year (about $2,100), and the Shochat Committee is reportedly considering only a modest increase, coupled with a subsidized student loan program to aid the needy. If the strikers truly wanted affordable education for all, the Shochat proposal trumps their idea of slashing tuition to about NIS 5,000. Currently, financial aid is available only to the neediest, whereas the student loan program would be open to everyone. Cutting tuition to NIS 5,000, in contrast, would reduce the universities' income by more than the entire existing financial aid budget - leaving no money at all for the truly needy, who cannot afford even that sum. Thus what the strikers were in fact proposing was that those who could easily afford higher tuition be subsidized at the expense of the less well-off. Even more outrageous, however, a university education significantly increases earning power. Indeed, even at double today's tuition, a standard three-year degree would pay for itself in just over a year: The difference between a job paying the average wage (about NIS 7,500 a month) and one paying minimum wage (NIS 3,710) is some NIS 45,500 a year. Thus the strikers were effectively demanding bigger government subsidies for their own entree into high-paying jobs, at the expense of funding for other programs ranging from bomb shelters to welfare for the truly poor. And when our "best and brightest" are that self-centered, is Sderot's abandonment truly surprising? THEIR SELF-INDULGENCE, however, was made possible by the government and universities. A credible threat to cancel the semester would have ended the strike quickly. But university heads repeatedly backtracked on their half-hearted threats, while the government, by agreeing to negotiate with the strikers, signaled that it would not support such a measure. Thus the students could strike in comfort, knowing that the costs would be borne by everyone except themselves. And indeed, they were. The government and universities pledged that the 41 days of missed classes would be made up, so the strikers will not suffer at all. But lecturers will have to curtail or cancel their summer sabbaticals, since the semester will be extended. Colleges will face an estimated NIS 20 million in additional expenditures, as external lecturers will have to be paid for extra weeks of work; either the government will finance this outlay, at the expense of other programs, or colleges will have to cut costs elsewhere - for instance, by firing janitorial workers who desperately need their jobs. Companies that eventually hire the strikers will receive less knowledgeable workers, since to avoid prolonging the semester excessively the universities agreed to pare down the syllabus. And students who depend on summer jobs to finance their tuition (many of whom opposed the strike) will see their earning period slashed by the extended semester, leaving some unable to finance next year's fees. BUT IF our "best and brightest" in government and academe have no qualms about making the innocent suffer for the strikers' convenience, is the decision to let Sderot suffer rather than inconvenience other Israelis truly surprising? The agreement that ended the strike also sabotaged the Shochat Committee reforms in advance. While the government refused to give students a veto over tuition hikes, it did agree to negotiate with them over the Shochat proposals once they are submitted. At best, this means a lengthy delay in implementing the proposals; at worst, the talks will produce a "compromise" stripped of any real reforms. Moreover, unless the government folds instantly, the negotiations will certainly produce another student strike as a pressure tactic. Since the current strike cost the strikers nothing and produced substantial gains (aside from negotiations, the government pledged NIS 248 million for various student demands), student leaders have every reason to repeat it. Thus the government effectively sacrificed the education system's long-term interests for short-term convenience. Given that, is its willingness to do the same on the far more complex issue of Sderot really surprising? FINALLY, there were the strikers' excesses. Student demonstrators repeatedly blocked major roads, including the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway; clashed with policemen and disrupted classes, often by terrorizing students who tried to attend them. This should sound familiar: Disengagement opponents also illegally blocked roads, clashed with policemen and tried to disrupt pullout preparations. But cabinet ministers and media pundits pilloried disengagement opponents, even accusing them of endangering democracy, while law enforcement agencies conducted mass arrests and prosecutions. In contrast, student strikers' identical actions were condoned and even applauded. No cabinet minister denounced their hooliganism; the media were almost universally sympathetic; and few students were arrested, of whom none has been indicted. IF SUCH behavior is ever justified, the anti-disengagement protests were far more so than the student strike: They were about a serious security threat and the homes and livelihoods of thousands of people, not increased subsidies for the upper classes. The very different treatment accorded these two sets of protesters thus demonstrates an indefensible double standard - one for those favored by our governmental and media elites, and another for those not so favored. Clearly, nothing could be more deadly to the social cohesion Israel needs to face the challenges ahead. But since Sderot is indubitably not part of the favored elite, is its abandonment by those who would never tolerate missiles on Tel Aviv really surprising? Contemptible as the students' behavior was, self-interest is at least an understandable motive. But the government, university and media elites who indulged their selfishness at others' expense have no such excuse: They are supposed to take a broader view. Their evident inability to do so makes one wonder just how valuable a university education is after all.

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