(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Israel's universities are largely to blame for their dire financial straits, because they pay high salaries and benefits to staff without the approval of the Finance Ministry, according to a report released by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss on Tuesday.
Lindenstrauss recommended forcing universities to comply with regulatory oversight by freezing their funding until they agreed to allow the Finance Ministry to review their books.
Universities had accrued large budgetary deficits that were eight times what they reported, according to the report. The universities had also abused claims of academic freedom to "justify defective activity in administrative areas that have nothing in common with academic issues," Lindenstrauss said.
The report criticized the Council of University Presidents, the Council for Higher Education's Committee for Planing and Budgeting, and the universities themselves for accumulating more than NIS 17 billion in deficit.
The funds earmarked for building international scientific relations - which are supposed to be used for research - were used for other purposes, including to pay retired academic staff, the families of deceased professors and senior administrators, Lindenstrauss said.
Other research funding went for business-class plane tickets for senior professors, he said.
The universities cannot deliver on the pensions promised to their employees, Lindenstrauss said. In addition, a large amount of the Council of University Presidents' funds have paid for salaries and media consultants, rather than to improve the quality of universities, according to the report.
Lindenstrauss also accused the powerful organization of attempting to derail and mislead his probe into its financial irregularities.
"The disbursement of funds to universities must be contingent upon their agreement to the Finance Ministry wage director overseeing the wages paid to employees," he said.
"The question of the Finance Ministry wage director's authority to supervise the universities must be brought for a decision in a court of law. Alternatively, [the Knesset] must propose a bill which clarifies that the universities are subject to the dictates of the Budgetary Foundations Law."
The Council of University Presidents said it was "carefully scrutinizing the report and its various facets, and will act expediently in everything that warrants correction."