By HAVIV RETTIG GUR
"This is a historic struggle, where for the first time students and faculty are uniting in coordinated protest," declared Prof. Ben-Tzion Munitz at a one-hour strike held Tuesday on the Tel Aviv University campus to protest the establishment of the Shochat Committee, which many students and faculty nationwide see as biased in favor of Finance Ministry positions on higher education.
"We are faced with a clever adversary that has a long-term strategy," Munitz said, referring to the Finance Ministry's budgets department and its head, Koby Haver.
This "enemy," he declared bitterly before thousands of students and lecturers assembled on the central lawn of the campus, "is the only government body that actually has a long-term strategy."
The anger at the Finance Ministry and the Shochat Committee, headed by former finance minister Avraham Shochat, comes from a feeling among many in the public higher education system that the committee's agenda is merely to rubber-stamp policies already decided in the Finance Ministry bureaucracy, without truly debating the issues from all perspectives.
Specifically, the lecturers' unions are worried about the possibility that the committee, which was established with the agreement of the Education and Finance ministries and the university presidents, will recommend implementing a merit-based pay scale for lecturers. The committee is also tasked with examining tuition policy, causing concern among student unions, who note that Shochat himself holds distinctly pro-Treasury views, exemplified by his opposition to the Winograd proposals from 2001 that recommended lowering tuition by 50 percent.
"You can't measure research by financial gains," declared the head of the Junior Faculty Organization, Dr. Ronen Borenstein.
"They [the Finance Ministry] want to break the academic faculty organizations," he continued, but insisted that a policy of "individual contracts and privatization will mean everyone loses." The student unions, for their part, seemed to be in a fighting mood more than at any time in recent years.
National Union of Israeli Students Chairman Itay Shonshine said the Shochat Committee's establishment amounts to "throwing the students down a stairwell."
Speaking to Education Minister Yuli Tamir, he charged that "two years ago, you said to the Knesset that Labor should leave the government if the promises to the students aren't kept. Apparently, when you become a minister, your priorities change."
"The students went to the Lebanon war without asking questions. But we came back to discover we were irrelevant," Shonshine accused to thunderous applause. He then wondered aloud "why [the] Winograd [recommendations] weren't implemented fully. It wasn't accidental that the students went on strike in 1998, or that the government decided to approve the Winograd recommendations in the first place." Yet, he concluded, "now they throw around the Australia Plan and differential wages and other things."
Such talk amounted to a "smoke-screen," he said, "because you [the government] haven't yet fulfilled your previous promises to the students."
Tel Aviv University Student Union chairman Boaz Poporovsky agreed with Shonshine's sentiments and targeted the Finance Ministry's budgets director Koby Haver specifically.
Establishing the committee "was a brilliant move [on Haver's part]," Poporovsky insisted. "For a slightly lower cut to higher education," he said, referring to the NIS 140 million promised to the universities so they could open the 5767 academic year on time, "he got a committee that lets him create a merit-based pay scheme for lecturers and raise tuition for students."
Tuesday's one-hour strike was just a first step in the unions' protests, a union representative said after the demonstration, promising that the protests would escalate until their voices were heard. "If the rules aren't changed, we will break them," promised Tel Aviv's Poporovsky in a statement.
On Tuesday, a senior advisor to Education Minister Yuli Tamir again deflected the criticism, noting that "Baiga is seen by everybody as a worthy committee chairman, and the committee members, to the man, are all relevant and capable of being on the committee."
For this reason, the advisor explained, "Yuli believes they [the student and lecturers' unions] are moving too fast. The committee hasn't held its first meeting yet. With that, the education minister feels "that it is their full right to demonstrate, and will not intervene," the advisor added.
The budget shortfall of the universities led to much acrimonious debate at the beginning of the academic school year in October, when a last-minute NIS 140 million contribution from the Finance Ministry quieted threats from the Council of Israeli University Presidents that they would not open their institutions for the new year. Yet, the contribution was delayed until the end of January, and on the first day of the 5767 academic year, Bar-Ilan University's Prof. Moshe Kaveh, representing the university presidents, warned that the budget shortfall would make it well-nigh impossible for the universities to open on schedule for second semester this year.
The Shochat committee, the outcome of intense negotiations between Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson, Education Minister Yuli Tamir and university presidents, was founded to "examine the future of higher education," Tamir said last month. Its initial recommendations are expected at the end of April, with final recommendations to be submitted at the end of June.
The committee includes Shochat, Chairman of the Council for Higher Education's Planning and Budgeting Committee Prof. Shlomo Grossman, Finance Ministry budgets head Koby Haver, the prime minister's economic advisor Prof. Manuel Trachtenberg, Prof. Jakob Ziv, a former president of both the National Academy of the Sciences and the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education, and Prof. Menahem Yaari, the current president of the National Academy of the Sciences.
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