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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Education Minister Yuli Tamir and Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson signed the Committee for the Study of Higher Education in Israel into being on Wednesday.
The signing marks the end of much wrangling between the Finance Ministry, the Education Ministry and the presidents of universities over the committee's purposes and composition.
"We need a fundamental, long-term solution," Hebrew University president Menahem Magidor told The Jerusalem Post after the announcement. "It took just five years [of budget cuts] to destroy the system. It will take decades to repair it."
While he said he was "hopeful" and believed the committee was "essential," he emphasized that it would have to "deal with the central question of how to save the higher education system," and not merely "throw NIS 100 million or NIS 200 million" at the problem.
For Hirchson, the committee's primary focus is preventing the "brain drain" of academics overseas and "returning researchers and scientists to Israeli universities." He was also "certain that the committee will present a comprehensive reform plan that will include such issues as changing the tuition level, merit-based pay that will encourage excellence and improving the efficiency of universities and colleges."
Tamir said she saw "critical importance in the committee's recommendations in determining the future of Israeli society in general and higher education in particular... The crisis of higher education in Israel demands fresh thinking" regarding its future and "the amount of national investment needed."
The only criticism came from the National Union of Israeli Students, whose leadership was bitterly frustrated at being left off the committee.
NUIS chairman Itay Shonshine told the Post that "students are the consumers" of higher education, and it was "irrational that they are not represented on a committee that is supposed to determine the product they will consume. Democracy is about rule of the people; they're supposed to work with us."
He also said "the promise of the regime from the Winograd Commission [which recommended lowering tuition by 50 percent] hasn't been fulfilled. So why are they moving ahead with this new committee?"
Shonshine announced that the NUIS would openly oppose the committee's founding and had established a staff that would work to coordinate the fight against it.
Headed by former finance minister Avraham Shochat, the committee is charged with examining a higher education system that many see as declining or even collapsing.
With budget cuts reaching some NIS 1.2 billion over the past five years, Prof. Moshe Kaveh, president of Bar-Ilan University and head of the Council of Israeli University Presidents, repeatedly threatened to close the campuses for sheer lack of funds with which to sustain their activities.
Only a last-minute promise of NIS 140 m. from the Finance Ministry permitted the universities to open in October. Despite the addition, however, Kaveh has warned that the budget shortfall would make it nearly impossible for them to open on schedule for the second semester.
But the universities' budgetary troubles are not merely short-term. They have forced the universities to cut academic staff by 22 percent, resulting in a situation in which 40% of scientists must leave the country to work in their fields.
The committee will study the amount and pay structure of university tuition. Among the options expected to be studied will be the "Australia Plan," according to which students will receive a loan from the state amounting to the full tuition cost, which they would not repay until their salary reached a level determined by law, usually the average salary in the workplace.
The committee's nominating letter, the document that brought the committee into being, also ordered it to examine methods of encouraging excellence in research and education, including managerial flexibility and a graduated merit-based pay for university lecturers. In addition, the spread of higher education institutions throughout the country will be studied, along with the different roles universities and colleges will play in the overall system, whether in terms of research or education.
Disagreements over merit-based pay for lecturers and the membership of Profs. Jacob Ziv and Menahem Ya'ari on the six-member committee had initially stalled the committee's founding as accusations of duplicity were hurled in the media. With an initial deadline for submitting its recommendations set for January 31 - less than three months away - intense negotiations over the committee's composition were under way until the its formal establishment on Wednesday.
The committee's deadline for issuing its recommendations has been pushed back to June 30, with preliminary findings to be published by April 30.