Olim protest lack of funding for higher education

Student Authority provides full tuition for new immigrants each year; Jewish Agency pulls remainder of funding.

July 1, 2012 18:47
3 minute read.
Olim protest outside PMO

Olim protest outside PMO 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

University students who recently made aliya dragged suitcases to the Prime Minister’s Office on Sunday to protest the breakdown in negotiations for funding of the Israel Student Authority, which provides full tuition to new immigrants for their university studies.

The Student Authority is funded by the Jewish Agency and the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, both of which have been trying to negotiate funding with the Finance Ministry for the past year.

This year, 6,700 olim are receiving full scholarships through the authority. A few days ago, students received an email stating that due to the failure to fill the NIS 30 million lack of funding, they may not be funded next year. This could include both new students as well as students who are in the middle of their degree.

“Here’s a community of people who have nothing, who have left everything behind, and they have the most motivation to change the country,” said Tal-Or Cohen, a Rockville, Maryland native who just finished her army service and is planning to start studying at IDC Herzliya in the fall.

Cohen slammed the Jewish Agency for turning their focus to Diaspora programming such as MASA and Taglit, which bring Jews to Israel for short programs, rather than assisting people already in the country.

According to the Immigrant Absorption Ministry, the budget for the Student Authority was NIS 70m. to fund the university educations of 6,500 to 7,000 olim per year. Through 2008, that amount was split evenly between the ministry and the Jewish Agency. In 2009, the Jewish Agency announced they could only fund NIS 16m., and the ministry covered 75 percent of the budget.

This year, the Jewish Agency announced they would stop funding the Student Authority entirely, but the ministry refused to cover the entire cost of the program, said ministry spokesman Elad Sonn.

The Jewish Agency responded on Sunday by saying no student would be denied their rights when a new funding agreement is eventually reached.

“I believe you’ve been recruited to fight a war that does not exist,” Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky said in a message to the students. “The Jewish Agency is in negotiations with the government over the division of responsibility for different projects that it manages.

We have made clear from that the start that no student will be hurt and we shall continue to bear responsibility for these projects... until the government assumes responsibility for them.”

He said protesters can “rest assured,” return to their studies and “be good ambassadors for the State of Israel.”

Negotiations are still ongoing in cooperation with the Finance Ministry. This is the high season for young olim to come to Israel, and they arrive at the beginning of the summer with enough time to do an intensive Hebrew ulpan course before beginning university in the fall.

“[Higher Education] is a right, not a privilege,” said Yakov Bikaw, a third-year law student at Tel Aviv University who made aliya with his family from Ethiopia in 1991. “The whole point of this country is about absorbing immigrants.

People came here to make their homes and they can’t make their homes if they are staying in the lowest classes, if they are stuck and can’t advance.”

Bikaw is about to embark on a Jewish Agency sponsored “shlichut” to Orlando, Florida, and he said it will be difficult to represent an organization and country that are perpetrating this wrong.

Other soldiers who recently completed their service said that as new immigrants paying for rent and food while in the army, they have no way to save money for university and the scholarships are the only way they could possibly achieve a higher education.

Sam Kadoch, director of the Centre National des Etudiants Francophones, which represents 600 French students, said he had no idea how to explain this issue to parents back in France. “This is the time when they come to do ulpan... now we have to tell the parents suddenly ‘there’s a problem.’” he said. “How can we tell people to make aliya if we don’t know if they’ll get an education here?”

Gil Shefler contributed to this report.

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