Presidents of Israeli universities on Wednesday expressed opposition to the official granting of university status to an Ariel educational institution.

In the letter, the Council of Presidents of Israeli Universities call on Netanyahu to stop the declaration of the Ariel University Center (AUC) as a university, saying the move would “deal a mortal blow to the higher education system in Israel.”

The letter, which was also sent to Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, goes on to describe a “lost decade” during which Israeli universities have suffered from underfunding, which has helped lead to a “brain drain” and have harmed Israel’s ability to be a world leader in research. The presidents say that all the improvements made in recent years could be set back by the decision to make the Ariel College a university.

Furthermore, they add that Israel “has no need for an additional university and creating an eighth university will deal a serious blow to the universities’ ability to recover from the lost decade and will negate years of advancement.”

Colleges in Israel do not receive research funding, which means they receive about 50% less money from government than do universities.

A five-year transition period from college to full university status for AUC will culminate in July 2012, when the institution is scheduled to receive government allocation for its research.

The letter came the day after Professor Daniel Zeifman, Head of the Weizmann Institute, told a meeting of the Council of University Presidents that he will boycott cooperation between his institution the AUC, according to a report in Ma’ariv.

In January 2011, a group of 155 academics signed a petition calling for an academic boycott of Ariel, saying that it is located in an illegal settlement that violates international law.

The petition was launched by Nir Gov of the Weizmann Institute’s Department of Chemical Physics.

Gov told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that he believes that the petition influenced the presidents’ decision to send the letter, in that both were against the “politicization of the higher education system”. He said that the announcement by Zeifman and the presidents is also in keeping with the petition’s call to boycott cooperation, adding that he is “very pleased, and will be more pleased if this move is successful.” The AUC issued a statement on Wednesday saying that the presidents letter “evades the real academic debate which deals with whether or not the AUC adheres to the academic and research standards that differentiate between a university and a college. The presidents are avoiding debating this status because most of them know the truth – the AUC meets all of the standards and criteria demanded of a university.”

Professor Dan Meyerstein, President of the AUC, said Wednesday that his school “has done everything according to the law to become a university and its unfortunate that my colleagues have made these statements without checking the facts.” Meyerstein said that opposition has greeted the founding of every new university in Israel, and added that there is no reason to say Israel can’t use an 8th university, being that the last one to be established was Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in 1969, and the population of the country has more than doubled since then.

Meyerstein said that he believes those opposing the university plan are doing so for two reasons; for political reasons and because they don’t want another university in Israel fighting for public funds.

When asked what the effect would be of a refusal to cooperate with the AUC, Meyerstein said, “if they want to cooperate they will. Cooperation in research isn’t done because of esoteric reasons, it’s done because the person on the other side can help you or you can help them.” Meyerstein also pointed to a report compiled by the Judea and Samaria Council for Higher Education in January, which said “we rule unanimously that the AUC is operating as a university in every sense of the word and is fitting to be a university.”

The report was compiled by a team that included Nobel Prize laureate Professor Yisrael Oman of Hebrew University, Professor Amos Altshuler of BGU, Israel Prize winner Meir Wilcheck of the Weizmann Institute, and Israel Prize winner Daniel Sperber of Bar-Ilan University, among others.

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