Analysis: Will the unions follow students' interests?

The new plan is a victory for students, but not for the student unions.

huc students 88 (photo credit: )
huc students 88
(photo credit: )
The reforms presented to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert on Monday, which already bear his signature, came as no surprise to anyone. Their multipronged plan - dealing with such varied topics as tuition policy, research funding in public colleges and merit-based pay scales for lecturers - created a series of disconnected proposals that failed to satisfy a host of groups. And students, whose unions will no doubt protest the loudest and have the ear and sympathy of many journalists, are the clear winners. The tuition scheme contained in the 213-page report will see a 70 percent rise in tuition alongside automatic loans whose repayment is easy and salary-dependent. It is a form of the Australia Plan that, together with an increase in grant funding for poor students, will make higher education more accessible to Israel's weaker sectors. Whereas a student today must pay NIS 8,588 each year to the university, the new plan will reduce these payments to NIS 5,800. The remainder will be paid (for most) in NIS 285 monthly increments as long as their monthly salary is above NIS 5,300. In other words, the poor will pay less and the rich will pay more. It is only the student unions, whose leadership must show why they nearly caused the cancellation of second semester last year, who will speak seriously of the need for totally free higher education. As Dr. Liora Meridor, chairwoman of the subcommittee that formulated the tuition scheme, noted, the current universal subsidies to higher education mean Israel's poorer half, which pays some one-fifth of the tax burden, will be funding one-fifth of the subsidies for students, the vast majority of whom come mostly from the upper half. The new plan is a victory for students, but not for the student unions. Since according to the late-May agreement with the government the student unions must agree to the recommendations before they can be brought to the cabinet, those dealing with Israeli higher education are watching with bated breath to see whether the student unions will engage in serious study and debate, or will - as already promised less than two hours after the recommendations were made public - cause another crisis in higher education in protest over a plan that they cannot show will harm their constituency in any way. Lecturer unions fear the Shochat recommendations mark the beginning of merit-based pay scales and individual lecturer contracts. At the same time, some policy analysts worry that the opposite is true - that the recommendations failed to adequately open the ranks of the academic faculty in ways that will attract the brightest and best of academia. The plan already has the approval of university presidents, Olmert, Education Minister Yuli Tamir and others charged with the implementation of education policy such as the Council for Higher Education and the Finance Ministry Budgets Department. It remains to be seen if the students will give their support.