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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The week-old student strikes that have shut down university and college campuses throughout the country received strong support on Sunday from the Knesset Education Committee as it convened in a special session to discuss the current state of higher education.
At the meeting, committee chairman MK Michael Melchior announced the establishment of a special inquiry committee under the aegis of the Education Committee to examine the current state of higher education, with a special focus on tuition.
The committee also called on the government to respect previous policy decisions and promises, including implementing the recommendations of the Winograd Committee from 2002 calling for the lowering of tuition to around NIS 6,000 annually in public universities.
In discussing the establishment in November of the Shochat Committee that is investigating the future of higher education, MKs seemed to side with the students.
The Shochat Committee, charged with investigating the state of higher education and developing policy recommendations on issues such as tuition, the "brain drain" of researchers leaving Israel and merit-based pay scales for lecturers, has attracted furious indignation from students and lecturers, who are not represented among its members.
"I am certain that the intentions of the committee, when it was established, were good," Melchior insisted, but added that, "when streamlining, it isn't possible to enforce conclusions without including all parts of the system, including lecturers and students."
Rather, he added, echoing a long-standing claim of student organizations, "there is a sense that a deal was engineered in the Finance Ministry according to which it would return the [over NIS 1b.] cut in higher education [funding] if the Shochat Committee raises tuition."
In a message well-received by student leaders, MK Zevulun Orlev said "tuition is a values[-based] decision in setting [national] priorities." He called for the removal of tuition policy from the purview of the Shochat Committee, suggesting that it be set by the Knesset.
"The Shochat Committee was born in sin," declared Kadima MK Ze'ev Elkin. However, he noted that "the higher education system is in crisis, and there is a need for a committee such as the Shochat Committee to suggest reform."
Student groups touted the Education Committee's decision to establish a parliamentary inquiry into the issue of tuition as proof that "the Education Committee has decided the Shochat Committee is irrelevant," according to a joint press release of the National Union of Israeli Students and the Israeli Students Organization. Even so, NUIS head Itay Shonshine said Sunday, "we won't stop out struggle until the prime minister meets with us."
Hundreds of students participated in demonstrations in the Gibor and Yagur junctions in the Galilee and in the Bnei Ephraim Junction in Tel Aviv Sunday, chanting against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Education Minister Yuli Tamir. A dozen students were arrested for obstructing traffic and clashing with police.
Student leaders made a point Sunday of promising the strikes would continue until student grievances were redressed.
Last week, student leaders canceled a meeting with Tamir, saying they would only deal with Olmert, since his approval is required - and has so far been withheld - for their demands to be fulfilled.
Specifically, the students blame the lack of prime ministerial support for the failure of an NIS 150-million agreement reached with Tamir in late February that froze a rise in tuition and promised a new state committee to discuss the students' demands outside the framework of Shochat.
"We're talking about a real and honest struggle for the future of higher education, and the solutions are in the hands of the prime minister alone," said NUIS chairman Itay Shonshine over the weekend.
In a separate Education Committee meeting on Sunday, the MKs called on the Secondary School Teachers Association, which has been striking to protest what it has called "foot-dragging" on the part of the Finance Ministry in wage negotiations, to return to the negotiating table. The SSTO has agreed to suspend its strikes until Tuesday in respect of Holocaust Remembrance Day, and Melchior has called on the high school teachers to negotiate non-stop until then to avoid a resumption of the strike.
Elkin called on the teachers to stop the strike for two weeks in order to "try to arrive at an agreement." "Everyone knows there is a deep crisis in the education system," Melchior said, "but at the same time we're hearing about a willingness on the part of the Education and Finance ministries to enter into serious negotiations.
"We will fully support massive strikes," he promised, "but first we must exhaust all [possibilities for] negotiation."