As they gather for their annual meetings, the governors of the country's universities are learning that there's never a dull moment in Israeli academia. The cabinet may today, belatedly, vote on whether to ratify the reform plan proposed by Israel's Committee for Examining the Higher Education System, better known as the Shochat Committee. Assuming the distracted cabinet focuses on the issue, it would only be because the universities have threatened not to open for the next academic year unless the reform is implemented. They want to be meaningfully compensated for previous and devastating budget cuts. Former finance minister Avraham "Baiga" Shochat and his committee were charged with conducting a thorough review of higher education: government funding, student tuition, the scholarship system, services for students, the division of labor between universities and colleges, employment models for faculty members and support for research. The Committee came up with a plan that would reimburse the universities for lost government funding, including through higher tuition fees. It also put together a reform package that would streamline and rationalize how the universities and colleges function. The proposals were submitted last July and by now should have been in place. But the Finance Ministry essentially obstructed implementation because of the expenditures involved -- an extra NIS 1.8b over five years. The Treasury opposed the plan unless it was accompanied by a substantial hike in tuition fees. Students went on a 41-day strike against higher fees at the end of last academic year, senior professors demanded pay adjustments and boycotted lecture halls for three months at the beginning of this academic year, and junior faculty almost walked out to back demands for fairer employment conditions last week. A convoluted fee-hike formula was reached in the wake of the student strike. But it won't appreciably contribute to the universities' coffers. The fees were to increase from NIS 8,600 to NIS 14,800 annually (still a bargain-basement price relative to most Western countries). However, only NIS 5,800 would be paid upfront, the remainder would be a long-term loan to be paid-off at subsidized interest over 10 years. But the students - themselves voters in any forthcoming election -- oppose even this. They want to keep fees where they are and for the government to make up the difference. Heading into today's cabinet meeting, the Education Ministry has reportedly removed all tuition fee clauses from the proposal. Thus the stage appears set for an inter-ministerial showdown. HIGHER EDUCATION has been incontrovertibly among the more pronounced victims of national belt-tightening in recent years. The cost-cutting measures which pulled Israel's economy so impressively out of the mire and made it the success-story that it has become also resulted in an almost 25% reduction in government outlays to the universities. Universities are badly hurting. An OECD study last fall showed that Israel's allocation to higher education is particularly low among developed countries. For instance, among 24 OECD nations, only the Greek government shelled out proportionately less than Israel on higher education. Clearly, if tuition fees aren't raised, the Treasury won't increase budgets. By conditioning the restoration of funds to the universities on higher fees, however, the Treasury has imposed on the universities a precondition that is out of their control, since Israeli universities do not have the authority to determine tuition fee levels. We urge the cabinet to confront the situation head-on. Either the Treasury must remove its own artificial preconditions and provide the universities with the requisite funds regardless of how the tuition fees conundrum is resolved. Alternatively, the Treasury must resolutely push for a workable student loans system and find the political will to make it a palatable proposition for the voting public. Let's recall that by the time they get to college most students have already served in the army. They deserve an education that provides excellence and is affordable. It is a fact that the finest institutions of higher learning abroad are recruiting the best Israeli researchers. If the cabinet fails to act, it will only exacerbate an already severe brain-drain, undermining Israel's ability to compete in today's globalized world. Brainpower is Israel's unique asset. The government must urgently supply our universities with the means to nurture excellence, and halt the shortsighted squandering of Israel's only natural resource.

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