Student and university lecturer unions threatened on Monday to immobilize the higher education system over their concerns about the newly-formed Shochat Committee.
"It is inconceivable that the [Finance Ministry's] Budgets Department would run the universities," said Prof. Zvi Hacohen, chairman of the Coordinating Council of Faculty Associations, which is comprised of the heads of the university faculty associations.
"First, Finance cut over a billion shekels from the higher education budget, and now - with the universities on the verge of collapse - they are willing to return part of the stolen money in exchange for a committee that will examine the conduct of the universities," Hacohen told The Jerusalem Post. He accused the Finance Ministry of seeking to dictate policy to the universities, despite the fact that "Article 15 of the Higher Education Law gives financial and academic autonomy to the universities."
The Shochat Committee, headed by former finance minister Avraham "Baiga" Shochat, was established in October to examine the future of higher education, and will deal with such issues as implementing a merit-based pay scale for university lecturers, setting tuition policy and dealing with the "brain drain" of researchers leaving Israel for better-funded departments in the US and Britain.
As a first step in the unions' protests, there will be a one-hour strike on Tuesday between noon and 1:00 p.m. to demonstrate that the students and lecturers are willing and able to carry out a broader strike if their demands aren't heeded.
Much of the criticism of the unions who will be demonstrating on Tuesday centers around a perceived pro-Finance bias among the six committee members, who do not include representatives from the student unions or university lecturers.
"We demand a committee headed by a neutral judge," National Union of Israeli Students chairman Itay Shonshine told the Post Monday. "Also, students should have proportional representation and the committee should be tasked with presenting a comprehensive reform plan," he added, blaming university presidents and Education Minister Yuli Tamir of "weakness" in facing Finance Ministry demands.
"This committee was born in sin," declared Tel Aviv University Student Union chairman Boaz Poporovsky. "It wasn't the result of planning on the part of the education minister," he told the Post, "but rather a demand of the Finance Ministry."
As such, he added, it was meant "in a roundabout way, to privatize Israeli higher education, through raising tuition and breaking the labor agreements with the lecturers."
"The chairman of the committee is wise and honest," said Hacohen, but agreed with the student leaders that "the committee's membership isn't balanced. It has members who were added at the insistence of the finance minister."
A senior advisor to Tamir deflected the criticism, noting that "Baiga is seen by everybody as a worthy committee chairman, and the committee members, to a man, are all relevant and capable of being on the committee."
For this reason, the advisor explained, "Yuli believes they [the student and lecturers' unions] are moving too fast. The committee hasn't held its first meeting yet."
With that, the education minister feels "that it is their full right to demonstrate, and will not intervene," the advisor added.
The budget shortfall of the universities led to much acrimonious debate at the beginning of the academic school year in October, when a last-minute NIS 140 million contribution from the Finance Ministry quieted threats from the Council of Israeli University Presidents that they would not open their institutions for the new year. Yet, the contribution was delayed until the end of January, and on the first day of the academic year, Bar Ilan University's Prof. Moshe Kaveh, representing the university presidents, warned that the budget shortfall would make it well-nigh impossible for the universities to open on schedule for second semester this year.
The Shochat committee's initial recommendations are expected at the end of April, with final recommendations to be submitted at the end of June.
The committee includes Shochat, Chairman of the Council for Higher Education's Planning and Budgeting Committee Prof. Shlomo Grossman, Finance Ministry Budgets head Koby Haver, the prime minister's economic advisor Prof. Manuel Trachtenberg, Prof. Jakob Ziv, a former president of both the National Academy of the Sciences and the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education, and Prof. Menahem Yaari, the current president of the National Academy of the Sciences.