End the strike

The lecturers strike is selective and partial - essentially a deluxe walkout.

University 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
University 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
The strike of senior university lecturers isn't yet their longest-ever to date, but this week it might well break 1994's 74-day-record. Fourteen years ago the professors congratulated themselves on what they considered an outstanding victory. This time they stand to win, at best, small salary hikes, but they will have caused inestimably greater damage to an incomparably more fragile and vulnerable higher education system. At worst, of course, they can bring the entire academic construct tumbling down. The university administrations have cited January 13 as a deadline. If the strike isn't over by then, this year's entire first semester will be canceled. There's no other conscionable choice. The sham of passing students who had done nothing cannot in good faith be accepted or even suggested. Even were the strike to be halted today, there is more than reasonable doubt that the students can honestly make up all the lost time. But if the semester is written off outright, the ground will quake beneath the campuses. Schools already deep in the red will be pressured - quite justifiably - by outraged students to reimburse them for their tuition fees. What this will do to already cash-strapped institutions boggles the mind. The top-most professors - ostensibly out to safeguard the excellence of Israel's academic teaching and research - will in fact achieve the precise opposite. Their strike is already not the paragon of integrity. The professors aren't staying entirely away from the campuses and are careful not to injure their own interests, such as their own research projects, which continue apace. The strike action is limited to refraining from teaching, in the cynical assumption that the students will go on the warpath against the universities and the treasury, thereby fighting their top-instructors' battle. The students unions indeed show every sign of backing the very group which evinced no compunction in focusing the strike's harm on them. The lecturers strike is selective and partial - essentially a deluxe walkout. Though portrayed as an altruistic struggle to stem the potentially devastating brain-drain, the professors' only antidote is a 30% compensation for pay-erosion from 2001. Yet considering the shekel's strength and the negligible inflation of recent years, that erosion is hardly as catastrophic as it would superficially appear. While lecturers demand their salaries be boosted by approximately a third, the treasury proposes only a few percentage points, which the strikers reject as paltry. The gap seems too broad for bridging without mediation. The lecturers, however, refuse consent to any arbitration process unless guaranteed a priori no less than a 16% rise. Yet even assuming that they get everything they demand, would the malaise of Israeli higher education be thereby alleviated? They would still not earn anything like their counterparts overseas, nor is there any realistic likelihood the hard-pressed Israeli universities could ever match the lucrative enticements of many of their wealthier foreign rivals. And what is true for those atop Israel's academic totem pole is all the more cogent for lower-level academics. Indeed if any sectors in higher education deserved greater outlays from the public coffers these must include tenured junior staff and grossly exploited freelancers. Each year more and more of the teaching duties are contracted to the latter at shameful wages, with no tenure, social security, academic perks or research opportunities. Some 30% of lecturers are currently outsiders on short-term contracts -invariably younger talents, the future of Israeli academia and those most prone to be tempted by opportunities abroad. The senior staffers' avowals of high-minded intentions would be far more convincing if instead of looking out for their own incomes they would be half as committed to improving the employment and advancement prospects of their lowest-ranking colleagues. Whatever gains they eventually make when their current work dispute ends, they will not have saved Israeli higher education but will have aggravated its financial crisis as never before. Therefore, the sooner this detrimental strike is over, the better for everyone, including senior lecturers now busy hacking off the very limb on which they sit. No amount of additional income can justify or nullify the harm already wrought. The dreadful deadline is fast approaching. If good sense doesn't take over by then the fallout would be too great to rectify. No cause is worth it.