(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
"For the first time in Israel's history, there's a real danger that the academic year will be canceled," Bar-Ilan University President Prof. Moshe Kaveh, chairman of the Committee of University Presidents (CUP), told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday evening. His comments followed a dramatic reversal in negotiations after the Finance Ministry refused to approve a tentative deal reached between the CUP and the striking Senior Lecturers Union (SLU) over a mechanism to prevent lecturers' wage erosion in the future.
"Nobody - not the 150,000 university students, not the state, not anyone - can afford to lose an entire academic year," Kaveh said. "We're standing at the edge, and it's not certain even now that we can compensate for the lost time. It's a matter of days, perhaps a week. We must return to negotiations immediately."
Asked what caused the sudden change in the Treasury's attitude, Kaveh said, "To the lecturers' bad luck, the deal with the [high school] teachers led to the Treasury's retreat."
A Finance Ministry spokesman declined to comment.
SLU chairman Prof. Zvi Hacohen agreed that the teachers' willingness to sign a tentative deal Monday night - which fell through when negotiations between the sides were abruptly ended Tuesday - was the probable cause for the Finance Ministry's rejection of the provisional agreement with the SLU.
"Maybe the Finance Ministry thinks they can finish the story through court injunctions, the way they did with the teachers," he said. "But they can't. [National Labor Court President Steve] Adler [who issued the injunctions against the Secondary School Teachers Organization] said the teachers' strike was not a purely economic one, but a 'pseudo-political' strike," since the teachers had demanded structural reforms alongside a new wage agreement.
By law, such strikes are more limited in the severity and time allowed.
"But our strike is purely financial, so there's no legal reason to ask for injunctions," Hacohen said.
Yet, even if the state would seek injunctions, time is running out.
"The point of no return [at which the academic year will be canceled] is in a matter of days," Hacohen said, adding: "You can't have a one-semester school year. You can't run a race with one leg missing."
Such a cancellation, he said, would be "a national disaster. Thirty-thousand students who will want to register for university won't have [any]where to go because last year's first-year students will repeat the first year."
"Our conscience is clear," Hacohen said. "We warned about this happening back in February."
The fault, he said, lies with the Finance Ministry. "Even now, no meetings are scheduled," he said. "If the Treasury won't honor agreements, why meet? Besides, it's not that we're refusing to negotiate. They haven't even invited us."
Even if the CUP-SLU agreement were approved, the government and lecturers remained deeply divided over compensation for wage erosion over the past 10 years. While lecturers insisted that in comparison to the average wage in the marketplace their wages had lost 32 percent of their value since 1997, Finance Ministry officials have claimed the wage erosion was closer to 3%.
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