Oron's admirable bill

It is plain wrongheaded for the Treasury to be threatening to derail vital high education reform.

haim oron 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
haim oron 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Finance Minister Ronnie Bar-On unleashed a particularly vituperative attack on senior faculty members in the country's universities last week. Some of it was unjust; some of it, though excessively scathing, contained critically cogent criticism. Bar-On was responding to Meretz chairman Haim Oron, who - in concert with MKs across the political spectrum - has proposed a bill that would translate into law key provisions of the Shochat Committee reform recommendations. Since this means a considerable cash outlay, the Treasury is dead-set against it. However, without financial transfusion, the opening of the new academic year this fall is in grave doubt. The Shochat recommendations were submitted a year ago and were supposed to have been adopted already. Their key rationale was to compensate the universities for five years of belt-tightening in which 20 percent of their budgets were slashed. An OECD study last autumn showed that Israel's allocation to higher education is particularly low among developed countries. Among 24 OECD nations, in fact, only the Greek government shelled out proportionately less than Israel. The Finance Ministry, though, has been obstructing the reform because of the expenditure involved - an extra NIS 1.8 billion over the next five years - and seeks to condition its implementation on substantial tuition fee hikes. For its part, the Education Ministry strenuously opposes fee increases. Meanwhile the Shochat plan remains unapproved, the students went on strike against paying higher tuition, senior professors walked out for three months to protest pay-erosion and junior lecturers threatened their own sanctions. Bar-On chose to pin the entire blame on the professorial higher-echelon, advising top lecturers "not to hide under skirts of academic freedom. You spend astronomical sums on trips abroad, and all in the name of academic freedom." No sooner, he charged, had the government "shamefully capitulated to the senior staffers, then they grabbed all the money and abandoned junior faculty members, but continued nattering about the brain-drain, which is caused when instructors are deprived of proper pay due to exorbitant raises given to those who don't deserve them." Bar-On was wrong to hold senior professors responsible for all that ails Israeli academia, including budgetary starvation. Yet his assertions that some of them enjoy very generous perks weren't altogether unwarranted, and he was perfectly right to accuse them of ditching the cause of junior staffers and the numerous "freelancers." The latter are shamefully exploited, accorded no social security, research privileges or tenure. They tend to be younger and hold the key to Israel's scientific and academic future. They are most vulnerable to temptations from overseas. The problem is that furious tongue-lashings will solve nothing. The options Bar-On would prefer - either the status quo or doubling tuition fees - are nonstarters. Spiraling tuition hikes aren't feasible in our environment, and things won't take care of themselves. The universities - regardless of all the inequities in their systems - are withering. Tel Aviv University has just announced that it plans not to admit new students to its philosophy department. Other schools may likewise close "unpopular" frameworks. Teaching standards and research opportunities are already severely compromised. Libraries and labs decline in quality. The Oron bill makes legal provisions for infusing the NIS 1.8b. to the universities until 2013 and freezing tuition fees till 2011. The universities, regional colleges, students and faculty have this time all subscribed to the proposal and agreed that most of the funds will go to improving the woefully neglected academic infrastructure. It is plain wrongheaded, therefore, at this dire eleventh hour for Israel's higher education, when all its components have reached rare consent, for the Treasury to be threatening to derail vital reform. By not bailing out the universities, the Treasury won't merely punish senior professors but also Israeli society. It will squander Israel's most precious natural resource - intellectual aptitude. We, therefore, urge the broad ad hoc coalition of most Knesset factions to persevere in their efforts to pass the Oron bill when it again comes up for a vote this week.