The Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria voted on Tuesday to grant full university status to Ariel University Center.
The council convened at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan at 3:30 p.m. and announced its decision at 8 p.m. Eleven of the committee members voted in favor of university status and two were opposed.
The decision, which could have international repercussions because of Ariel’s location in the West Bank, will make AUC Israel’s eighth university and the first beyond the Green Line.
CHE-JS chairman Prof. Amos Altshuler told The Jerusalem Post that OC Central Command Maj.-Gen. Nitzan Alon’s authorization was still needed for AUC to become a university.
However, Alon is expected to back up CHE-JS’s decision.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu telephoned Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman and congratulated him on the council’s decision.
“This is a holiday for Ariel, and also a holiday for higher education in Israel,” Netanyahu told Nachman.
The move to make AUC a university was also backed by Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, who in a letter sent to Sa’ar on Sunday pledged NIS 50 million in funding for the institution over the next two years.
According to the proposal set out by Steinitz, Ariel will receive NIS 20m. in 2013 and NIS 30m. in 2014. The budget will then gradually increase.
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.
AUC has around 13,000 students, 5 percent of whom are Arabs.
The vast majority of students – 85% – live within the Green Line.
A relatively large proportion of AUC’s students come from the lower middle class and it has a higher percentage of Ethiopian students than any other higher education institution in Israel.
Sa’ar also welcomed the decision, saying that CHE-JS decided not to surrender to a campaign of pressure and intimidation. The council arrived at the right decision, the education minister said, making that choice based on a professional report compiled by an academic review committee.
“The decision is important news for AUC and serves the best interests of Israel’s entire education system,” he said.
Dani Dayan, chairman of the Council of Jewish Communities in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, called the decision “historic,” and said it came after “unfair political pressures that got worse in recent days, set against which were the professionalism and integrity of Steinitz and Sa’ar.”
There are seven universities in the county, not including the Open University, the newest being Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, which was founded in 1969.
The heads of those seven universities sent a letter to the prime minister on Tuesday, demanding that he intervene and prevent AUC’s recognition as a university.
The university heads said that granting AUC university status would “seriously harm and fragment Israeli higher education.”
Israeli universities would have less to spend on research, which would make them less competitive globally, a recent report commissioned by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem said.
However, in a statement on Monday, AUC denied that claim, saying that Steinitz had pledged to give the institution a fixed budget that would come from additional higher education funds, and would therefore not hurt other universities.
Also on Tuesday, Prof. Emanuel Trajtenberg, the head of the Planning and Budgetary Committee of the Committee for Higher Education, also opposed making AUC a university.
Speaking before CHE-JS’s meeting began, Trajtenberg argued that the council would create a conflict of interest if it voted to grant university status to AUC.
Then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin set up the CHE-JS in the early 1990s, when the Council for Higher Education found itself legally unable to deal with colleges beyond the Green Line.
In 2005, CHE-JS voted to grant Ariel interim status as a “university center.”
Trajtenberg said Tuesday the CHE-JS was acting out of political considerations, making its decision solely based on a quantitative checklist including the number of its students and professors, and ignoring the quality of the AUC’s research, the quantity of peerreviewed papers published and its national impact on academia.
The National Union of Israeli Students, Peace Now and leftwing parties also opposed making AUC a university, and voiced their objections outside Bar-Ilan University on Tuesday afternoon. Also present, but in support of the move, were activists from Im Tirtzu – Rebuilding a Zionist Society.
Some protesters held banners showing a divided Star of David with the caption “Don’t let the ‘State of the Settlers’ take over the State of Israel.”
One protester from Meretz held a placard with the slogan “Ariel is not Israel.”
Itzik Shmueli, chairman of the National Union of Israeli Students, walked out of the CHE-JS meeting, complaining that student representatives were not given an opportunity to vote at the meeting.