A dismal lesson

From secondary school on up, Israeli education has not functioned normally for months.

student demo jlem 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
student demo jlem 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
From secondary school on up, Israeli education has not functioned normally for months. Universities and colleges have been strikebound for most of the academic year, while high schools are being randomly shut down - a few days here, another day there - as teachers battle with the Treasury for higher salaries. On either side of these disputes, a bruising game of hardball is being played at the expense of young Israelis who are cramming for their term finals and for matriculation exams, or who are missing out on day after vital day of their education. Troublesome as strikes are at the school year's outset, sanctions imposed toward the end of the year are patently cynical, akin to medical staff at a hospital walking off when patients are already anesthetized and prepped for surgery. The teachers have cogent pay claims. The Treasury, for its part, must strive for fair allocation of the national budget. What is unconscionable here is that the price of their inability to bridge their differences is being paid, and paid so protractedly, by the students. Since the teachers are uncompromising and the government is unmoving, indeed seemingly apathetic, it is long overdue for the courts to intervene more forcefully and effectively to end this disgraceful state of affairs. It may be that the teachers launched their labor action when they did because of the widespread perception of the government as exceedingly weak and simultaneously beset by numerous critical challenges. It may be that their strategists thought the government might prove a soft touch. A similar perception may have encouraged university students to go on the warpath as well. They, however, have far less of a case than the teachers, and they themselves are the principal victims of their own actions. Pro-forma, the students are striking against the Shochat Commission, which is tasked with overhauling higher education finances. Their suspicion is that this commission will raise tuition fees, only a few years after the Winograd Commission (appointed by then-premier Ehud Barak) recommended the gradual halving of fees. The reduction process was halted at 26 percent by the time the Shochat Commission debuted. The students' demand is that Israel emulate Europe. America isn't cited because fees there, even at undistinguished state universities, are well into the five-digit dollar figures. But even subsidized Europeans pay. In Germany, for instance, new fees are €500 per semester, while elite universities are costlier. The populist decision to cut Israeli fees was not even mandated by objective need. Israel, whose society and economy face challenges unmatched in Europe, offers extraordinarily low tuition fees for first-rate academic education. The annual cost of tuition in top universities here is some NIS 8,000 (about $2,000 or €1,400). Fees are higher at private institutions and local colleges, as is the case everywhere. Current Israeli fees are such that any able-bodied student can earn enough over the summer vacation to cover them. Loans and aid are also available for needy students (including programs, for which astonishingly few students sign up, only requiring them to tutor disadvantaged youngsters). The students' belligerence over fees borders on the petulance of spoiled children. Their temerity in hindering traffic at major thoroughfares is insufferable. Nonetheless, the police dispersed them with uncalled-for ferocity last week. This is hardly the first instance in which officers allow themselves to respond with excessive brutality toward demonstrators who really don't threaten them. Overall, the array of education-related labor action constitutes a disheartening combination of mistrust, selfishness and an inability to achieve viable compromise. Both the high school and the higher education crises are eminently solvable, with a modicum of goodwill, common sense and competence. The strikes continue because these basic qualities evidently cannot be mustered. What a dismal reflection on the various leaderships, and what a dismal lesson for young Israelis.