Fair deal for students

Because of their hubris and evident desire to escalate the dispute rather than to solve it rationally, students may begin feeling the pinch this fall.

student demo 2  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
student demo 2
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Included in the Shochat Committee's package of proposals on reforming the higher education system is what prima facie seems like a steep hike in undergraduate tuition fees, slated to go up by more than 70 percent - from NIS 8,588 annually to NIS 14,800. These obviously are mere recommendations, likely to serve as opening gambits in an arduous haggling process. Nevertheless, today's students could have spared themselves added expenses. Their unions maladroitly foiled that opportunity, yet gained absolutely nothing instead. The country's student leaders should do some soul-searching, and so should students who meekly followed them during the prolonged strike that did away with almost an entire semester just a few months back. The government offered a truly lucrative inducement to get the students back to the lecture halls: an undertaking not to hike tuition fees for any student already enrolled for as many years as he/she continues studying. Student union leaders rejected this disdainfully - out of professed concern for future generations - something they ought to now profoundly rue. Because of their hubris and evident desire to escalate the dispute rather than to solve it rationally, currently-enrolled students may begin feeling the pinch this fall (though how much it would hurt remains to be determined). The unions are already threatening to stop the new academic year from opening unless the Shochat recommendations on tuition fees are axed. Union ire isn't mitigated by the fact that the increase is to be accompanied by generous student loan arrangements, to be made available to all students regardless of socioeconomic status. This new loan scheme would in fact make Israeli university tuition more of a bargain than it had hitherto been in comparison to fees overseas. Even the full NIS 14,800 is hardly exorbitant by most international standards. However, only a NIS 5,800 annual payment would be required up front. The rest would be defrayed after the graduate begins earning an income, on condition that it exceeds a monthly minimum gross of NIS 5,300. Monthly repayment installments would average NIS 285. The assumption is that while one may be poor as a student, financing tuition retroactively is feasible as education significantly raises individual earning potentials. Nevertheless, the student associations are up in arms, even though in practical terms tuition could end up being more affordable. They say the Shochat plan will impose debt on the students and mortgage their futures. This is more than disingenuous. Have-nots ought to welcome the opportunity to pay reduced fees when their situation is at its most difficult, and most of Israel's students can afford even the hiked tuition. But the bottom line for the student mainstream is that they will be required to pay more in the long run. Since they have the means, the issue of when they pay matters less. The problem is that without higher fees, the entire higher education construct could crumble. The bottom-line student demand is that they be subsidized by taxpayers, many of whom are worse off than most students. That's an unacceptable position. A state with limited resources has more pressing needs than to over-subsidize students who are offered eminently equitable arrangements. All concerned - from Shochat to the government - must spare no effort to inform and enlighten the students about these economic facts of life. Otherwise, those at the upper rungs of Israel's educational system may fall easy prey to union organizers who have vested political interests in preventing agreement and intensifying the conflict. The students must be inoculated against shallow demagoguery that would exclusively focus on the higher overall sum and paint the postponed reimbursement plan as insincere and fraudulent. Even budding intellectuals can become the victims of misrepresentation. The students themselves must learn not to run unthinkingly with the pack but to demand an all-campus referendum on any future strike action. During this past spring's showdown, representatives of the majority - who supported an earlier return to studies - were outvoted by a skewed action committee that gave small schools such as the Wingate Institute and giants such as Tel Aviv University an equal single vote. The ability to impose extreme measures on the students' "silent majority" must be removed from the hands of a few ambitious individuals who may have blinded themselves to the interests of the students they claim to represent.