'No doubt - education reforms required'

PM tells cabinet correct balance must be struck between increasing education budget, tuition fees.

Avraham Shochat 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Avraham Shochat 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Council for Higher Education Planning and Budgeting Committee head Prof. Shlomo Grossman criticized the government on Sunday for failing to make any decision regarding additional funding for the universities. The cabinet heard from Avraham (Baiga) Shochat about his committee's recommendations for improving higher education for the first time on Sunday, more than a year after the committee's report was released. Grossman also froze all tuition increases for the moment in light of the lack of decisions by the government. At the meeting, Education Minister Yuli Tamir once again protested any raise in tuition. Grossman told the ministers that the upcoming school year was in dire straits unless the government acted now. "It is already clear now that we can't begin the next school year without more resources being budgeted for the system," he said, "The lack of clear budget parameters seriously damages the ability to plan lessons and the level of research. "The government must take a strategic decision on the subject of the higher education budget and understand that higher education is the main lever behind developing the economy and the most significant factor in closing social gaps," he said. Student leaders have complained that the government was breaking a promise by holding discussions on the Shochat Committee report without their agreement. Students held two protests Sunday, with dozens gathering outside the Prime Minister's Office and the Finance Ministry. The Council for Higher Education's Budgeting Committee has requested an immediate budget influx of NIS 1.8 billion without raising tuition. The Shochat Report recommended, however, raising tuition - which would raise the overall influx to NIS 2.4b. Students have been vehemently opposed to such a move. At the beginning of the meeting, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the government would hear a summary of the Shochat Report and hear from all the relevant parties, but that no decisions would be made in the meeting. Instead, the higher education budget would be discussed in the near future when other budget issues would be discussed, according to a summary of the discussion. Despite indications prior to the gathering that student representatives would be excluded, they were allowed to attend the meeting. A senior cabinet source concurred that there was a problem. "There is agreement that higher education is in difficult straits, even crisis. Everyone agrees that significant steps must be taken," the source said. The government had three objectives when it came to higher education, said the source. "We must ensure the availability of higher education to the wider public so that socioeconomic factors don't discourage people's advancement. Second, we must encourage cooperation between the universities and the colleges, particularly in the periphery. Third, we must work to prevent the brain drain from Israel," the source said. Committee of University Presidents (CUP) head and Hebrew University of Jerusalem President Prof. Menachem Megidor told the gathered ministers that higher education was on the verge of collapse because of politics. "The higher education system is on the verge of collapse. The decision regarding implementing the Shochat Report is stuck in the middle of arguments between politicians. "I expect the government of Israel to come to a clear decision immediately. Because of disputes between politicians the decision is stuck, and the students and the higher education system have become the hostages of the government," he declared. Olmert said before hearing Shochat's presentation, "Today we will begin discussions on the reform and I am very hopeful that by the beginning of the new school year and emphasized in the 2009 state budget, our goals will be realized [referring to those goals the source outlined]."