Shochat C'tee to push for vast reforms

Plan to revitalize academia includes higher tuition, grants to poor students.

When the Shochat Committee makes its recommendations public on Monday, they are expected to include a sharp rise in tuition, but with a governmental loan scheme that will spread payments over 10 years. Students earning low salaries after their studies will have large parts of their loans canceled. The contents of the plan, which took 10 months of painstaking deliberations, could not be confirmed by committee representatives. According to the committee's expected recommendations, annual tuition will be raised from NIS 8,588 to more than NIS 14,600, a nearly 70 percent increase. NIS 5,000 would be paid at the beginning of the first year of studies, and the rest over 10 years. The committee is expected to recommend that part of the loan be forgiven for those earning low salaries after their studies, similar to the "Australia Plan" for college tuition. Student leaders, such as National Union of Israeli Students head Itay Shonshine, have cautioned the government against reneging on its late-May agreement that gave student representatives a de facto veto over the recommendations, stating that they would have to agree with the recommendations before they could be brought to the cabinet for a vote. If student leaders will not be consulted, and their concerns addressed, several student union leaders said over the past few days, the unions were capable of reinstating the five-week strike against the Shochat Committee that ended in late May. Tensions are running high ahead of the recommendations. After plans by student activists to disrupt the Monday press conference were revealed, the conference was moved from the public venue of Beit Sokolov in Tel Aviv to the guarded confines of the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem. In April and May, the student unions launched a strike of some 250,000 students in all of Israel's universities and most of its colleges to protest the establishment of the committee, which they accused of being a "neoliberal plot to privatize higher education," and which included no student or lecturer representative. At the time, the students demanded establishing a separate state commission to examine university tuition, to be headed by a retired judge and not - as with Shochat - a former finance minister. They also demanded the full implementation of the Winograd recommendations of 2001, which included lowering annual tuition to below NIS 6,000. None of this had happened by the time the students had called off their strike. Now, after the strike caused university presidents to extend the last semester of the 5767 (2006-07) academic year by weeks to prevent its cancellation and students groups were founded to campaign to end the strikes, it is unclear whether the student unions have the political capital or institutional capacity to cause a crisis on a similar scale. According to the late-May agreement between students and the government, tuition for the 5768 academic year will be frozen at NIS 8,588. The expected recommendations, if implemented, will only take effect in the 5769 school year. The Shochat Committee is also expected to recommend a restoration of some NIS 1.4 billion in funds cut from higher education since 2001, along with an increase of almost NIS 1b. in government funds for academic and scientific research. It will also recommend capping the number of university students accepted to the state universities each year, and offering generous "absorption packages" to exceptional researchers willing to come to Israel from overseas. The mandate of the Shochat Committee, established in October 2006 to examine the future of higher education, includes examining merit-based pay scales for university lecturers, setting tuition policy and dealing with the "brain drain" of researchers leaving Israel for better-funded institutions in the United States and Britain.