Court rejects petition by University of Latvia grads

The Supreme Court on Sunday rejected petitions filed by hundreds of government workers whose degrees from the now-defunct University of Latvia's extension branch in Israel were rejected by the Ministry of Education. In its brief years of existence in Israel between 1996 and 1999, the university bestowed M.A. and B.A. degrees on 7,500 graduates, most or all of them civil servants who wanted to increase their paychecks by obtaining an academic degree. The extension branch, along with a similar one belonging to Burlington University, was run by Avraham Even-Chen, a senior official in a company called Modum. In 2001, the police began to investigate allegations of irregularities surrounding the extension courses, including the purchase of degrees by students and bribes handed out by Even-Chen. Even-Chen was eventually indicted on several charges, including giving bribes, and was convicted and sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison. Among those convicted of obtaining a degree by deceit was former Shas MK Ya'ir Peretz, who was given a 12-month suspended sentence. Soon after the allegations surfaced, the government decided to stop recognizing degrees obtained from the University of Latvia and Burlington University. The decision affected 4,000 civil servants whose degrees had not been recognized up until then. Representatives of graduates whose degrees had not been recognized petitioned the High Court of Justice to overturn the government decision. On March 18, 2004, the court accepted the petition, declaring that the government could not unilaterally and indiscriminately refuse to recognize the degrees of so many graduates and had to examine each case individually. The government agreed to establish committees to examine each of the 4,000 graduates. After a process which cost the state NIS 4 million and involved a questionnaire for each graduate, a face-to-face interview, and an examination of each student's final project, the Education Ministry decided to recognize the degrees of half the graduates. It rejected the other graduates mainly on the grounds that they had not answered the questionnaire or had refused to answer questions during the interview. In some cases, the examiners found that a graduate had copied his final project from someone else. The state then sent letters to all 4,000 graduates informing them of its decision. Initially, the state refused to recognize the degrees of most of the graduates. However, during the court hearings, it changed its mind regarding some 2,000 of them. It also agreed to grant a second hearing to 620 graduates who had refused to cooperate during the original interview, on condition that they pay NIS 800 to cover the cost of the second interview, which would be given by a state-hired private company. Hundreds of the graduates whose degrees had still not been recognized by the state petitioned the court again, demanding additional government concessions. However, a panel of justices headed by Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch rejected the petition.