University strike ends as students, gov't reach agreement

Leaders had been prevented from voting twice by protesting students who disrupted the meetings.

student demo jlem 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
student demo jlem 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Amid bitter and loud debate, 33 student union leaders from around the country voted by a 2-to-1 margin late Monday night to accept the government's compromise proposal on the Shochat Committee, effectively ending the strike that has shut down universities and colleges for 36 days. The leaders, gathered at Kiryat Ono Academic College, had been twice prevented from conducting the vote since they first met on Saturday night, as students protesters - both for and against accepting the government's offer - disrupted the gathering. "I believe that this agreement will be kept," said National Union of Israeli Students head Itay Shonshine after the vote. "Before the struggle, the government ignored the student public, but the struggle bore fruit." The compromise offered by officials from the Prime Minister's Office provides the student unions one groundbreaking achievement - a formal veto over Shochat Committee recommendations. According to the agreement, immediately after the committee presents its recommendations, before they are sent to the cabinet for approval, student and government representatives would meet to discuss them. "The discussions will end in agreed-upon recommendations that will be given to the cabinet," according to a copy of the compromise offer obtained by The Jerusalem Post over the weekend, giving student groups veto power over the text that will be presented to the cabinet. The compromise also freezes tuition for the upcoming 5768 academic year at the current level of some NIS 8,600. It promises the current semester will not be canceled and that students will not be penalized despite having missed more than one-third of the semester. On condition of "the implementation of the Shochat recommendations as agreed in the cabinet," the compromise would include a return of more than NIS 1 billion, spread over four years, to the higher education budget, funds that had been cut over the past seven years. However, much that the students had wanted is missing from the final agreement. The student organizations had fought to disband the Shochat Committee, which they accused of being a "neo-liberal" plot to "privatize higher education," and which included no student or lecturer representative. They had also demanded a separate state commission of inquiry to examine university tuition, to be headed by a retired judge and not - as with Avraham Shochat - a former finance minister. And they had demanded the full implementation of the Winograd recommendations of 2001, which included lowering annual tuition to below NIS 6,000. None of these demands, which student leaders had repeatedly called their "red lines," is in the agreement. Furthermore, according to many of those who opposed accepting the agreement, the ability in practice of student leaders to use their newly-acquired veto power is limited by the simple fact that the basis for negotiating will be the Shochat recommendations. Students may be able to tweak some of the recommendations on individual articles, say these critics, but that is all. The National Union of Israeli Students, for its part, called the agreement a "victory." "With all the cynicism and criticism, it is impossible to ignore our successful addition of more than NIS 1b. to the higher education [budget], a respectable achievement by any measure," an NUIS representative said. The union also released a Smith Institute poll indicating that two-thirds of students supported the agreement and an end to the strike. "We will be on the guard to make sure the promises are realized," the union said in a statement Tuesday. Meanwhile, Students in White, a coalition of students and student groups opposed to the continuation of the strike, issued a statement welcoming "the response of the NUIS that ended the strike before Shavuot." The group had threatened to massively increase its protests against the student unions if the strike was not ended by Thursday morning. The agreement has apparently headed off an effort by MKs to resolve the crisis through legislation. Last week, the Knesset Education Committee threatened to set tuition by including it in the Student Rights Law if the negotiations did not bear fruit this week. The Shochat Committee's preliminary report is expected at the end of the month.