The jewel in Israel's crown

If the present discordant government wishes to destroy Israel's universities, this is the way to go.

September 20, 2008 21:56
3 minute read.
Tel Aviv University

Tel Aviv University 88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

It's not easy to run publicly-supported institutions of higher learning in Israel nowadays. These institutions rely heavily on the state for considerable slices of their operational budgets. They are therefore also subject to officialdom's strictures about just how much they may collect in tuition fees. For better or worse, tuition-fee guidelines are adhered to - despite varying degrees of controversy, squawking among students (who want to pay less) and university administrations' moans about insufficient income. This year, however, is shaping up into a unique, indeed unprecedented mess. The three main players not only fail to act in concert but actually pull in contradictory directions. The Finance Ministry has unilaterally moved to reduce its tuition-fee subsidy - from 26 percent to 20% - i.e. by NIS 100 million. For the past few years the already severely cash-strapped schools counted on the 26% subsidy to underwrite a gradual fee-reduction for students, which was decreed in 2001. Their minimal assumption was that this would continue this year as well. The more optimistic expectation was that the Shochat Committee recommendations would finally - if belatedly - be at least partly put into effect, thereby incrementally ending the lean years for Israeli higher education. However, instead of steady cash transfusions compensating for harsh cutbacks since 2003 - NIS 2.4 billion over five years according to Shochat - further slashes are now effectively threatened. The Treasury, playing hardball, has dismissed the universities' outcry and suggests they make up their losses via tuition hikes - by an average of nearly NIS 1,000 per student. In absolute terms this isn't exorbitant, as in absolute terms academic schooling in Israel is a bargain (especially if compared to similar-quality education in America). However, in terms of what can be practically imposed in the given socio-political climate, the increase is a nonstarter. Students already threaten a strike (they boycotted classes for a prolonged period in the 2006/07 academic year). They are, moreover, backed by Education Minister Yuli Tamir, at direct loggerheads with Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On. Tamir opposes any raise and, as head of the Higher Education Council, insists the status quo remain unless the government plenum decides otherwise. However, the council had demonstratively refused to heed her. In a move geared to express resentment toward the ministerial tug-of-war, the council opted for a laissez faire approach. Until the powers that be get their act together, the council advises, universities can please themselves. In other words, it's formally a free-for-all. Two schools - Tel Aviv University and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology - have desisted from sending out any payment forms, though the academic year starts in six weeks. They hope something will be sorted out by mid-October, at which point they'll know what to charge. Some institutions, diving deeper in the red, bill what they did last year. Others include the 6% Treasury-mandated surcharge, with the proviso that students might be reimbursed. The upshot is that the students are on the warpath, whereas the universities doubt they can launch the new academic year under circumstances in which they are denied the promised financial lifeline and are additionally faced with new cutbacks. All this comes hot on the heels of a strike by senior faculty last year and threats of walkouts by junior staffers. Libraries and labs are neglected, research grants are woefully insufficient and the oxygen is sucked out of institutions upon which Israel's long-term success incontrovertibly depends. Gray matter is Israel's single outstanding natural resource. In a globalized world economy, temptations become ever more alluring overseas, even without young academics getting pushed out by gross governmental mismanagement. It's unrealistic to claim that all brain-drain is avoidable, but some most certainly is. The overall sums involved in the current squabble aren't prohibitive. The shameless ministerial wrangles only add insult to the injury of the continuous indefensible failure to implement any facet of the vital Shochat reform. Its universities were the jewel in Israel's crown even in years of extreme austerity. If the present discordant government wishes to destroy that jewel, this is the way to go.

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