Knesset Panel: Serious deficiencies in university oversights

Committee also examines report of ‘academic politicization’ of legal clinics in Haifa University.

Students at Tel Aviv University 370 (photo credit: Danielle Ziri)
Students at Tel Aviv University 370
(photo credit: Danielle Ziri)
Government-funded universities open new courses outside of their budgets and without approval, in order to rake in more than NIS 100,000 per student, the Knesset State Control Committee said on Wednesday.
The committee met to discuss a number of issues, primarily the state comptroller’s January 2012 report on the lack of oversight in the country’s higher education system. It also discussed reports of “academic politicization” and “inappropriate behavior” in the legal clinics at the University of Haifa, where the school’s law students assist in legal cases in order to gain experience.
“There is a heavy feeling of a lack of supervision at universities funded by the state,” said committee chairman Amnon Cohen. “The Council for Higher Education failed in its role and did not uphold the public interest, and therefore universities operated unapproved programs lacking in equality.”
According to the findings of the State Comptroller’s Report, universities have had to deal with government budget cuts, a rise in private academic colleges, increased faculty salaries, and the flight of faculty and students to private institutions. As such, universities have created programs without funding and oversight, to serve as an additional source of income. The report cited examples of academic degrees in these programs at Tel Aviv University, saying they had “relatively low” acceptance criteria and ranged in price from NIS 37,000 and NIS 117,000 per degree.
The report further stated that while such extra-budgetary programs had existed since the 1980s, they had mostly been for business administration. Since then, these programs have expanded to include the humanities, technology management, politics and government, diplomacy and security, engineering, philosophy, medicine and many more fields.
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, in the 2008-09 academic year, 2,096 students were enrolled in extra-budgetary programs. In the 2009-10 academic year, there were 30 such programs at Bar-Ilan University, 26 of them for undergraduate students.
Education Minister Shai Piron said that “we will also work toward higher education reform, and will settle the relations of power between the government, the Planning and Budgetary Committee and the Council for Higher Education. Sometimes under the cover of ‘authority’ or ‘academic freedom,’ things happen that should not happen. The report has exposed serious deficiencies, and I promise that in another six months, I will have answers.”
Piron noted that he had appointed a committee, headed by Prof. Hagit Messer- Yaron that would submit its conclusions within six months.
Regarding the University of Haifa legal clinics, the Knesset committee addressed what it called their “inappropriate behavior (lack of equality and transparency)... as well as the oversight of the planning and budgeting committee [vis-àvis those clinics].”
A recent report by the Im Tirtzu organization, whose goal is to strengthen Zionist values in academia, alleged strong political biases in the clinics, which enable the students to provide legal services to underprivileged populations.
Cohen opened the discussion by saying that from his knowledge of the university legal clinics he believed their work was an “important and worthy cause" as they enable students to gain valuable legal experience while in school.  However he added, “complaints have been received against these state-funded bodies, and it is not clear what the interests of [certain groups acting behind] the clinics are. Do these organizations have an interest against the state?” Cohen posed the question of whether the University of Haifa, or other universities allowed political organizations with a desire to attack the state to run legal clinics that enabled students to represent terrorists.
Members from the legal clinics of universities announced they would not be able to attend the committee discussion due to a conflicting scheduled seminar.  Cohen expressed skepticism regarding that explanation and said the discussion would continue regardless, despite a request by the education minister at the beginning of the session to postpone the discussion.
However, Adv. Haran Reichman, Director of the University of Haifa Legal Clinics was present at the committee meeting.  Reichmann said the legal conference was planned in September and it was in no way an excuse organized by the legal clinics to avoid the committee meeting.
Reichman asserted that the Im Tirzu report was false, with a number of inaccuracies and lacking in credibility. He also pointed out that the clinics, unlike the university, are not financed by public funds but rather from donations alone.
Im Tirtzu CEO Matan Peleg  said “While legal clinics are supposed to serve as a tool for society, through academia, which helps Israeli society in exchange for support from citizens, it is unreasonable that universities funded by the government should operate clinics that represent people who are not citizens and who are against the state itself.”
MK Karin Elharar (Yesh Atid) said she welcomed a discussion on the matter and hoped that the clinics will also be subject to oversight like the rest of the universities.  She continued to say “even murderers like [Adolf] Eichmann received legal representation. I am convinced that the institutions are doing very significant work.”
Cohen replied that “if the clinics are supervised like the rest of the universities, then woe to the state of Israel.”
Likud Beytenu MK Shimon Ohayon also said he believed the meeting should be postponed to include the representatives from the legal clinics as well as the education minister as this was a serious matter that warranted discussion.  “There are bodies that are taking advantage of democracy in order to bash and take advantage of our institutions,” he said.
Following the discussion on the legal clinics, the State Control Committee said it would begin exploring the matter and scheduled a follow-up meeting for a few weeks from now.