Students threaten new school strike

Leaders: Gov't reneging on promises; panel recommends 72% tuition raise.

Students zion sq 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Students zion sq 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Student leaders were quick to respond on Monday to the publication of the Shochat Committee's recommendations for higher education reforms, protesting the proposed hike in overall tuition and threatening to renew their strike if the government failed to fulfill its promise to consult the students before the recommendations are implementation. According to National Union of Israeli Students head Itay Shonshine, the committee's conclusions would "lead to the privatization of higher learning," and would have to pass student approval first. Meanwhile, Shochat Committee members, including former finance minister Avraham Shochat, tuition subcommittee chairwoman Dr. Liora Meridor and prime minister's representative Prof. Manuel Trachtenberg, said they hoped the students would take the time to carefully examine the 213-page report before rushing to the media or making any political moves. According to a late-May agreement between the national student unions and the government that ended the five-week student strike, the committee's recommendations must receive the student unions' agreement before going up for a vote in the cabinet that would make it policy. "[Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Education Minister Yuli Tamir] signed the agreement saying that the students also have to agree to the committee's recommendations," Shonshine said Monday, promising that "the school year won't open... if the Israeli government lies again to its student population." On Monday, the Committee for Examining the Higher Education System, better known as the Shochat Committee, delivered its final recommendations for reforming Israeli higher education to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The problems it sought to address were specific. With budget cuts to higher education reaching some NIS 1.4 billion since 2001 and a loss of income due to lower tuition, the per-student expenditure on higher education has fallen 20 percent during that period. After 10 months of deliberations, the committee on Monday issued its recommendations, which included a sharp rise in tuition, but with a governmental loan scheme that would spread payments over 10 years. The committee recommended that tuition be raised from NIS 8,588 annually to NIS 14,800, an increase of over 70%. Of the new higher sum, just NIS 5,800 - 33% less than currently - would be paid at the beginning of each year of studies, and the rest at no more than NIS 95 per year of study during the decade following the end of studies. For example, a student doing a full three-year degree and utilizing the loan in its entirety would pay back the NIS 27,000 loan in monthly increments of NIS 285 per month, fully returning the loan in just under eight years. Crucially, repayment would depend on the student reaching a gross salary of NIS 5,300. If the former student does not reach this salary during the 10 years, the loan becomes a grant. Regardless of the 120-month countdown, the rate of return cannot exceed NIS 95 per study year per month. Meanwhile, special grants will be set aside for poor students to cover the NIS 5,800 base tuition, NIS 30m. will go toward scholarships in the humanities, and millions more for room and board for poor students studying far from home. In addition, the committee recommended an increase of some NIS 2.5 billion to the annual higher education budget of NIS 8.3b., a whopping 30% rise. Of this rise, 1.5b. will come from an increase in the state higher education budget, 150m. from the universities, and 600m. from the new tuition scheme. In addition, the committee recommended a vast increase to research funding. The NIS 250m. given out each year by the National Science Fund will be doubled, a new NIS 100m. fund for biomedical research will be opened and a NIS 15m. fund will be set aside research in the humanities, which is cheaper but, as Meridor said, no less important to a society. Another NIS 200m. will go toward "research infrastructure," including laboratories and scientific libraries. According to Shochat, the new plan will be phased in over a five-year period beginning in the 2008-2009 academic year. The committee also recommended 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.