Edri: Don't dump the ulpanim on the Absorption Ministry

Ministry cites lack of institutions of a professional education system.

ulpan Etzion 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ulpan Etzion 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Ministers are usually not opposed to receiving added responsibilities and funds. So it is noteworthy that Immigrant Absorption Minister Ya'acov Edri is trying to do just that, telling the Knesset Absorption Committee on Monday that giving him responsibility for the country's Hebrew courses for immigrants (ulpanim) will "harm olim." "I'm against the education minister's decision to transfer the ulpanim to my ministry," Edri told the MKs in the course of a briefing on the ministry's activities and budget for 2008, and asked for their help in preventing the transfer. The Absorption Ministry is worried. As its director-general, Erez Halfon, explained in the Knesset meeting, his ministry lacks the institutions of a professional education system, the Hebrew teachers themselves, and the funds to run the 300 nationwide courses. The Education Ministry was jettisoning the program because, according to its director-general, Shlomit Amihai, the ministry cannot afford to fund it. According to education officials, the new education reforms developed after last year's teacher strikes, costing some NIS 5 billion over five years, were not budgeted the necessary funds to pay for their implementation. According to Knesset protocols from an Absorption Committee meeting in December, Amihai described the decision to cut the ulpanim out of the ministry's budget as "a necessity due to the 2008 budget cut, which takes half a billion shekels away from the ministry." She said the ministry's Adult Education Department, which has run the ulpanim since their inception, "bore the brunt of the cutbacks, even though this issue is close to our hearts. We have a responsibility to carry out the core function of the ministry, which is the regular education system," she explained. But Absorption Ministry officials dispute the claim. "They get the funding [for the ulpanim] from the Finance Ministry," said one absorption official, "but they want to use these funds to pay for other things, such as the reform plan. We're ready to fund the program," the Absorption Ministry official insisted, "but only if we also get the funds and the professionals to do so." Last year, Amihai decided to cut the ulpanim budget by 50 percent for the current academic year, but agreed in January to delay the cut until the proposed transfer of the ulpanim to the Absorption Ministry was completed in September. Meanwhile, a joint committee of representatives of the two ministries has been meeting for the past four months to work out a solution to the problem. One idea floated in the discussions was to outsource the Hebrew courses to private language-studies institutes by mid-2009, subject to the supervision of the Absorption Ministry. Now, just two weeks before the joint committee's recommendations are due, both the absorption minister and the ministry director-general publicly expressed their opposition to the transfer. This may explain a recent meeting between Amihai and Pensioners' Affairs Ministry director-general Abraham Zur, during which Amihai reportedly asked that Zur's ministry take on responsibility for the ulpanim. As it is, the current system is ineffective, with Absorption Ministry studies in recent years discovering relatively low levels of Hebrew proficiency among olim who complete an ulpan, which half of all olim never do. Olim are entitled by law to 500 state-funded hours of Hebrew studies during their first six months in the country. Paradoxically, the perception that the ulpanim are inadequate in their current state is working against the Absorption Ministry's efforts to keep the program in the Education Ministry. As MK Zeev Elkin (Kadima) told Edri and Halfon at Monday's meeting, "in the Education Ministry, the ulpanim were a distant step-child, the lowest priority. In the Absorption Ministry they will be the top priority." Absorption Committee chairman MK Michael Nudelman agreed: "The ulpanim will be better run in the Absorption Ministry." But, he promised, "this committee will work to ensure that the transfer in a year will go smoothly."