Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Proposed Huge Jump in Israeli Tuition Prompts Renewed Threat of Student Strike

Tuesday, July 17, 2007



Student leaders in Israel are threatening a nationwide undergraduate strike if the government imposes a 70-percent jump in tuition and carries out other recommendations of a committee that on Monday published a wide-ranging report on reforms in higher education.

The Shochat Committee's proposals include doubling the higher-education budget, to $2.5-billion; providing $225-million in new research funds; doubling the budget of Israel's National Science Foundation, to $120-million; providing special undergraduate scholarships in the humanities; and rewarding outstanding researchers and academics in an effort to stop an Israeli "brain drain" to the United States.

"The implementation of these reforms will be like injecting oxygen into a system that has suffered severe deterioration," said a former finance minister, Avraham Shochat, who led the committee. "This is the most comprehensive and thorough reform proposal to strengthen the higher-education system in Israel that has ever been presented."

Mr. Shochat said the reforms, if enacted, would increase access to higher education for all Israelis wishing to attend university, add 450 new lecturers to the academic staff, reduce class sizes, and improve centers of excellence in research and teaching.

The committee, composed of Education and Finance Ministry officials, academics, and a former university president, recommended "unprecedented aid systems for increasing accessibility." That goal would be attained through increased scholarships for students from poorer families and from sections of society where university attendance is not strongly encouraged.

But the most controversial aspect of the proposals was the recommendation to raise undergraduate tuition from about $2,000 to $3,500 a year.

Mr. Shochat said that most of the fee for each student should be absorbed by a long-term loan, which would only become repayable a year after graduation, and then only if the student was earning a wage comparable to a high-school teacher. He said students would actually pay less while studying, enabling everyone in Israeli society to attend college "irrespective of their socioeconomic status or the financial situation of their parents."

Students declined an invitation to sit on the committee, and ended a crippling 41-day strike in May with a promise from the government that they would be consulted before any of the proposals were adopted. On Monday they appeared to be poised to reject the reform program.

"We will not accept loans. We will not allow this farcical reform to go ahead," said Itai Shonshein, chairman of the National Union of Israeli Students.

He said the apparent doubling of the higher-education budget was "an illusion" because the budget had been halved in recent years.

"They are replacing the money taken by the government with the money of the students," he said.

Mr. Shonshein threatened that if the government did not allow the students to exercise a veto over the proposals, "the next school year will not open."

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