Why academics are on strike

Our struggle is really over funding for education and research not just our salaries.

Haifa University 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Haifa University 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
What is called Israeli academia is actually our seven public research universities - where practically all basic scientific research is done. For an outsider, it is difficult to assess objectively what is happening there. The skillful disinformation campaign of the Treasury via its missionaries in the media "demonstrates" that our research and teaching are well financed, but our management is bad and we waste public money; we work six hours a week and get huge salaries. Under usual circumstances these inventive lies would simply drive me mad. But they don't; instead, I am sad and dead worried, and this is why: 1. Research. In all, the total budget of all our seven universities is only about half that of one average public American university, e.g. Ohio State (data by Prof. Menachem Nathan from Tel Aviv University). Yet, contrary to the Treasury's allegations, so far our academia was not only highly respected but also the most efficient in the world per invested dollar, as estimated by how much our scientific works are cited by others - relative to number of citizens. (Source: Nature 430, July 15, 2004). But our enormous achievements are now being destroyed by our own government just in front of our crying eyes and bleeding hearts. Our budgets have been cut by more that a billion NIS, in the last five-six years. We invest less in equipment and infrastructure, lagging unbearably behind the Americans and Europeans. External research funds (grants) are also dwindling. ISF (Israel Science Foundation) is the main source of basic research money in Israel. In biomedical sciences, ISF grants are 3-5 times smaller than the equivalent American National Institute of Health (NIH) grants. Yet, ISF's funding is constantly decreasing, and twice during the last three years, it had to cut the already awarded grants by about 4%. This Finance Ministry "experiment" reminds of the famous research in which a horse has been proven to improve his performance (per invested shekel) by constantly reducing his daily ration. Unfortunately, the horse is no longer with us to confirm the achievement. 2. Teaching. The classes are getting larger and the resources leaner. As a doctoral (PhD) student and teaching assistant in Tel Aviv University 25 years ago, I instructed first-year medical students in seven practical training sessions ("labs") in the Introduction to Physiology course. Today my PhD students instruct in one remaining lab in this course; the rest are gone owing to shortage of funds. Only shortage of space stops me from providing many more examples. 3. Quantity and quality of academic staff. Around 2001, a brutal cut of funds stopped the regular process of hiring bright young researches (to replace the retiring ones). Since 2001 about 800 of 5,000 tenured academic positions in the seven universities were cut down, causing an irreparable damage to science and teaching. Up to 50% of the courses are now taught by junior academic staff (mostly our own PhD students) and non-tenured teachers hired for eight months a year and shamefully fired every summer, without academic rights and unable to do any research. How long would it take till our "privatized" teaching reaches the level of rival tenured Iranian professors? 4. Quality of tuition. It is getting worse, but the Shochat Committee suggests the increase of tuition fees by 70% to finance a way out of the evils that the last governments had done to the academia. Fewer students from low and medium income families will be able to study. THAT'S WHY we are on strike. The official cause is the deterioration of salaries during the past 11 years. But most of us feel that actually the fight is for the future of our research, education, universities and, in a broader sense, of our country. It is a fight of all: students, professors and junior staff. A few weeks ago, a group of us suggested to the Senior Staff Committee of Tel Aviv University to redefine the cause or our strike and say, laud and clear, that to save the Israeli Academia and higher education from deterioration we demand from our government:
  • Give back to the public higher education system the stolen money, and add more, the way all developed and many of rival countries do. This will allow the improvement of research and teaching without increasing tuition fees.
  • Restore the academic positions ripped off the universities, to ensure smaller classes and to improve the chances for future careers in academy to our brightest students.
  • Upgrade the social rights and salaries of junior staff and adjunct instructors.
  • And, of course, also compensate us for the deterioration of salaries. UNFORTUNATELY, neither our Committee nor the Coordination Council (the all-Israeli body representing the senior staff) had officially adopted these demands, except in their rhetoric. Maybe we are not ripe; our professional organizations are trained to fight for salaries and to leave the future of the country to government. Sadly, the latter don't do the job. Only in a concerted action for our wider goals, together with our students and our young colleagues, can we stop the senseless and dangerous demolition of our public universities. The writer is professor of physiology at the Sackler School of Medicine, Tel Aviv University.