Treasury, university presidents battle to prevent 3rd consecutive year of strikes
In 2007, it was the students. Last year, it was the staff. And in what may turn out to be the public university system's third consecutive strike, it's now the university presidents who are threatening to postpone the start of the 2008-09 academic year as long their budgetary demands are not met. But it's not just their demands that are holding up the prospect of a timely start to the new semester. The financial assistance at the heart of the current stalemate is based on the findings of the government's own Shochat committee, which was established in October 2007 to examine the future of higher education. Looking into an array of problems facing the country's university system, the committee's report recommended the allocation of NIS 2.4 billion to the system over the next five years. But university presidents say they have yet to see a shekel and will not begin the academic semester until the Finance Ministry has approved at least part of the funding. In a letter sent to students earlier this month, the Council of University Presidents (CUP) - a body made up of the presidents of the country's seven universities - informed students that "regrettably, under the conditions that have arisen in the wake of negotiations with the Finance Ministry, we cannot open the academic year as scheduled." When the letter was originally e-mailed on October 7, the announcement was seen as more of a call to arms than a final declaration. But continued fruitless negotiations between the council and the Finance Ministry, coupled with a lack of time to hammer out the final details, have painted a bleak picture for an on-schedule start to the academic year, which was set to begin next Sunday. "We're basically in the same position we were in two years ago," said Moshe Kaveh, president of Bar-Ilan University and former head of the CUP. "Our laboratories are understaffed and in disrepair, we have 10 to 15 students sharing one book in the library, and we're offering a degree to our students which is meaningless because we don't have the resources to provide them with a university-level education." Kaveh said that based on that, the majority of students were standing with the CUP on the issue, and some would even be accompanying Kaveh to the Knesset on Monday, where he was hoping the government would pledge to fulfill at least the 2008-09 budgetary needs as laid out buy the Shochat committee - NIS 480 million. "I hope the government approves it," Kaveh said. "But if they say no, they're basically saying that they don't care about the one resource that has brought the most prosperity to this country, and that's human resources." Kaveh said that with the funding, he hoped to bring back to Israel many of the professors who have left for overseas institutions - part of the infamous "brain drain" Israeli universities have been suffering in recent years, and an initial factor that spurred the Shochat committee's formation. For others, however, it's simply too late. "I just can't allow myself to walk into an institution that can't sustain itself," said Abra Kayne, who told The Jerusalem Post that in light of the turmoil in the country's universities in recent years, she's decided to pursue her degree in the US or Canada. "I saw the 2007 strike and the way teachers and students were getting tossed around, not knowing when their studies were going to start, and I just can't put myself in that situation. I can get a full scholarship to schools in Costa Rica for environmental studies." And while other students said they were willing to stick it out, they expressed fear and uncertainty as to the coming academic year and the looming postponement of classes. "I really hope they figure things out before next week," said Yael, a student at Hebrew University's Givat Ram campus. "After last year's strike, I ended up studying for 10 months straight, just to catch up. Me and all of my friends are just waiting to see what will happen. We won't even say the word 'strike' out loud."
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