Students threaten university strike today

Unions say government has failed to abide by agreements to lower tuition.

Student unions have threatened to shut down all public universities and colleges Tuesday in protest over what they have called the government's failure to abide by its agreements. "We will continue to struggle until funds for higher education are restored and until tuition is lowered," said Tel Aviv University Student Union Chairman Boaz Toporovsky. The student unions are accusing the government of failing to implement a NIS 150 million deal reached between the unions and Education Minister Yuli Tamir in late February and approved by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert that established an independent committee outside the framework of the Shochat Committee to examine university tuition. Under the terms of this agreement, university tuition would be frozen for the 5768 (2007-2008) academic year at the current rate of NIS 8,588, and college tuition would be lowered beginning next year. But, student groups say, the prime minister has yet to provide his approval of the deal in writing, and government agencies have not carried out their obligations. "In light of the lack of written confirmation from the prime minister, we are forced to close down higher education studies to protect the rights of students and to prevent a rise in tuition," said Bar-Ilan University Student Union head Itamar Donenfeld. The open-ended strike is due to go into effect on Tuesday morning, following the end of the weeklong Pessah holiday. Jewish Agency chairman Ze'ev Bielski called on students not to carry out a strike. "[The students] must give negotiations a chance. The public must act responsibly and try to come to an agreement appropriate for all sides," said Bielski. According to Bielski, the Jewish Agency has contributed NIS 60 million to higher education in Israel. The mandate of the Shochat Committee, established in November 2006 to look into 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. Students and lecturers have claimed the committee's members are beholden to the Finance Ministry, and that its recommendations were pre-determined and would involve the "privatization" of higher education in Israel. The latest strike threat includes a renewed demand that the committee be dismantled and a new "objective" committee be established in its stead. Committee head Avraham Shochat, a former finance minister, has called on all parties to wait patiently for the outcome of the committee's deliberations, telling the student groups it is "pointless for you to conduct a struggle against something that isn't there." Professor Zvi Hacohen, chairman of the coordinating body of the Senior Academic Staff Organizations, said that the the Shochat Committee was given a document discussing hiring teachers under personal (as opposed to collective) contracts. Hacohen said making such a move without consulting representatives of the academic staff was inconceivable and that it constituted a labor dispute. Another threat of an impending strike comes from higher education teachers, who last week announced a labor dispute with university heads.