Higher Education: Strikes against them

Lecturers' Union head talks about why faculty joined students in a countrywide protest this week.

hebrew university 88 (photo credit: )
hebrew university 88
(photo credit: )
The Shochat Committee, headed by former finance minister Avraham "Baiga" Shochat, was established in October to examine the future of higher education. It 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 the country for better-funded institutions in the US and Britain. On Wednesday, student unions shut down 10 universities and colleges to protest the lack of student representation on the committee. While they were striking, and university presidents and Education Minister Yuli Tamir asked them to await the committee's recommendations, they were joined by the usually quiet Lecturers' Union. Both overtly and, in some places, more quietly, faculty joined the protests and articulated to The Jerusalem Post warm support for the students' actions. Unless they grow significantly to encompass a nationwide protest movement, as happened in 1998, the student strikes alone are not likely to stop the committee's work. But a nationwide strike by lecturers could radically alter this balance. The Post asked Ben-Gurion University biochemist Prof. Tzvi Hacohen, head of the Lecturers' Union, why his colleagues are publicly opposing the Shochat Committee, what they plan to do about it and what he thinks can be done to help fix what is broken in the higher education system. Why are the lecturers opposed to the Shochat Committee? Over a five-year period, the Finance Ministry has cut some 20 percent of the higher education budget. It's a murderous cut, over a billion shekels. In fact, it brought the universities to the verge of collapse. Now, when it's clear that the system is going to collapse, the ministry is willing to return part of this theft, but it demands in return its right - as the one who controls the flow of money - to decide where the money goes and to be the decider in issues of higher education, including the level of lecturers' salaries and the salary structure. These are issues that, normally, would be decided in negotiations between the faculty and management [of the universities] or the Planning and Budgeting Committee [in the Council for Higher Education]. The Treasury has no standing in this issue. The Shochat Committee was established illegally. In article 15 of the Law of the Council for Higher Education, the topics the committee will cover are explicitly reserved for the Council for Higher Education. This includes changing the salary structure for lecturers. And nobody has explained why this needs to be done, other than the fact that the Finance Ministry controls the money. They [Finance Ministry officials] want something in return for considering releasing the money. If this were done in any other place, it would be cause for a lawsuit for blackmail. But if the state does it, it's legitimate and respectable. If it is an illegal committee, why don't you turn to the High Court of Justice? The presidents of the universities have to do this. If they support the committee, what chance do we have of convincing the court? If [the differential salary structure and the tuition reform] had remained in the appropriations bill [as the Finance Ministry planned at first, before the establishment of the Shochat committee], then we would have petitioned the High Court. They knew this, so they took it out of the bill. Education Minister Yuli Tamir and the committee chairman have both asked that you await the committee's recommendations, to be submitted in draft form by the end of April, before beginning to protest. Then why not wait even after the recommendations? Why not remain quiet during the implementation phase, too? The damages at that stage would be irreversible. When the Maltz Committee gave its recommendations and told universities to implement what they wanted from the committee's report, a minority report, essentially belonging to the Treasury, was also released. Then the government told the universities that if they didn't implement that minority report, they would lose 30 percent of their budget. This is actually a kind of violence. And they did it all under the headline of 'implementing the Maltz recommendations.' We don't want to let this happen again. You have to kill these things when they're small. Does the Finance Ministry control the committee? It has the power. True, there is only one ministry representative [Finance Ministry Budgets head Koby Haver] on the committee, but he has more power than all the others put together. They only have to say, quietly, 'If you do what we want, there will be more money. If you do what you want, there will be less.' You believe committee members were told this? Of course. One way or another. You have called Shochat himself 'wise and honest.' Aside from Haver, the committee also includes Prof. Shlomo Grossman, chairman of the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education; Prof. Jakob Ziv, a former president of both the National Academy of the Sciences and the PBC; and Prof. Menahem Ya'ari, current president of the NAS. Prof. Manuel Trachtenberg, the prime minister's economic adviser, completes the list. All parties, including you, have called these people trustworthy. Are you so sure the committee's recommendations are preordained by Finance officials? Is there a problem with the committee's trustworthiness? Look, in 1992, there was the Tzur Committee that examined the salaries of the senior faculty. There was no representative of the Finance Ministry on that committee. That's how it should be. Now, for some reason, they establish a committee with a representative of the Finance Ministry. Now, if they establish a subcommittee that will deal with budgeting, it would be logical that the Finance Ministry should be there, since they know the systematic budgeting for the whole economy and would give that perspective. But here, the university lecturers have been invited to the subcommittee, while the Finance Ministry sits on the committee that makes the decisions. We're not willing to play that game. Why did the presidents of the universities, without exception, accept the committee? Why has Tamir asked that you wait? Arguably, those who are qualified are willing to give Shochat a chance. That's exactly the problem. They had no choice. Tamir didn't want to do this, but it's the best compromise she could get. The Budget Department in the Finance Ministry is stronger than all other cabinet ministers [outside of Finance] put together. The presidents of the universities are subject to incredible pressures. The proof is that a month ago they published in newspapers a letter of support for the committee that read like the Communist Party messages under [Romania's late dictator Nicolae] Ceausescu. When I speak to them alone, one-on-one, they say very different things. When someone gets to the point where they have to publish such a humiliating, kowtowing letter, it's obvious that someone from the Finance Ministry told them they would lose more funding if they didn't do what they were told. Are the university presidents cowardly, or even dishonest? They are all honest and fair, and maybe if I was the university president and they were heads of the Lecturers' Union, we'd be saying the exact opposite. But the pressure they're under, their fear, is powerful. Each one is terrified for his institution. Then why don't they join you? Why don't they shut down the universities in protest over the committee? If all university presidents came out against the Shochat Committee, surely the media, and maybe also the political system, would listen. Because, I'm telling you, they're afraid. The institutions are barely standing. Five years ago I told them to do this. I told them we'd help with the strikes. I told them if they didn't strike then, it would only get worse. I spoke to people in the Budget Department in the Finance Ministry. I asked them if they knew what happened in Australia with the so-called 'Australia Plan' [for reforming higher education that many in the Finance and Education ministries have been discussing recently]. I asked if they knew that it was considered a failure; that a book has been written about the failure; that a government commission of inquiry was established to look into the failure. They said they didn't know. They never heard, never read. So they think they know what to do with the Israeli higher education system? Where does this chutzpah come from? What can be done to wrest the committee's recommendations away from - as you see it - Finance Ministry control? In its current form, with the way the committee is functioning, it has no right to exist. It's giving an image of respectability to bad deeds. After all, there are serious and good people who sit as members, people whose judgment I trust blindfolded. But some members are more powerful than others. Many have spoken of the lack of strategic planning in government. Only a handful of people, perhaps four or five, are dealing with education in the Budget Department. At the same time, political instability has led to a constant change of leadership at the Education Ministry. All seem to agree that the system is in trouble, while most state universities in the West are experiencing similar budgetary problems. In the face of this reality, where do we turn for the strategic planning process that can see us through any necessary reforms? The planning process exists in the PBC at the Council for Higher Education. But the problem isn't structural, it's financial. For example, the University of California, with all 10 of its campuses, has approximately the same number of students as Israel's universities. But its budget is 10 times higher. So to compare us with American universities is not possible. First of all, the Treasury has to return the money that was taken away. Then, if there is a need for changes or corrections, let the PBC establish a committee. What right does the Treasury have to establish this committee? What is the Treasury's expertise in this issue? Did Koby Haver ever run a university? What does he know about this? If you had to undergo brain surgery, would you accept Koby Haver as your surgeon? But to conduct surgery on the higher education system - on the brain of the country - for this he is qualified? Is there one thing the country could do immediately that would help fix the higher education system? It's very simple. If a billion shekels have been cut, first of all they must be returned. And what next? There isn't a single thing. You always have to self-critique, to check and improve. That's true of all large systems. But the people who must do this are the professionals, not simply those who control the money. Finance Ministry officials have told the Post often that, despite the criticism leveled at them, nobody is offering an alternative plan to repair the ailing system. I don't understand that, with such a low budget and yet such high results. It's a miracle the system is still standing. We're world leaders in terms of the number of citations, articles published, patents. The only reason we need to reform the system is because the Finance Ministry has stripped away a billion shekels. How did the universities cut the budget? By cutting faculty. Then people don't stay in Israel to teach. Then they say there's a crisis, and we have to find a way to keep lecturers from leaving the country. Of course there's a crisis! Open the position and these lecturers will teach. People talk about salaries, but first open a position before deciding if the salaries are appropriate. I did my B.A. and M.A. in organic chemistry at Bar-Ilan University, and my doctorate at the Weizmann Institute [of Science]. My post-doctoral studies were at Harvard Medical School. I'm not saying that to show off; this is common around here. And it remains true today. Our students are accepted to post-doctorates at the best universities in the world. There are plenty of countries whose universities don't send their students to these universities. Last week, after you threatened to strike over the lack of a wage agreement, the Finance Ministry announced it would begin negotiations. The lecturers have worked without an agreement for five years. What happened? Yes, it's interesting. Three hours after we threatened to shut down the universities, the Wages Department at the Finance Ministry announced it was willing to sit down for negotiations. It's a stunning coincidence. Why did it have to reach the point where we threatened to strike? Why couldn't it happen without this threat? Of course, based on our familiarity with the Finance Ministry, we're worried that it's going to be a nominal affair. They will hear what we have to say, tell us they have to speak with their bosses. Two weeks later, they will call to say we need another meeting. That meeting will be delayed a few times because someone will be sick. That way they will carry on without end. We don't intend to allow this to happen. If the negotiations don't advance, or the reasons for delays seem to us unjustified, then they will have to negotiate while the universities are on strike.