Monday, 22 October 2007

Israeli Academic Year Begins With Faculty on Strike

Monday, October 22, 2007



Israel's academic year began deep in crisis on Sunday as faculty members at universities throughout the country went on strike in pursuit of a 20-percent pay raise.

Hours earlier, university heads rescinded their threat not to open the campuses, in protest of government delays in honoring a commitment to provide an extra $75-million in support this year. In a compromise with the government, the presidents accepted an infusion of $55-million instead.

The universities opened, but most of the teaching-staff members stayed away. Students spent the day completing administrative procedures, registering for library cards, and shopping for last-minute materials.

Some 120,000 Israeli university students are affected by the strike. They join 600,000 high-school students locked out of their classes as a separate wage dispute by high-school teachers entered its 10th day on Sunday.

Israeli higher education is only just recovering from a crippling student strike over fees last semester. The student action, which went on for 41 days, forced universities to extend classes into the summer-vacation period. And the end of the previous academic year was disrupted by the Lebanon war, which closed down campuses in northern Israel, exiled thousands of students from their homes, and caused hundreds of students and staff members to report for reserve military duty.

In the current dispute, a faculty-union representative, Zvi Hacohen, a professor of desert research at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, said lecturers' salaries had been eroded by 15 percent since the last wage agreement was signed with the government, in 2001.

Israeli university lecturers earn the equivalent of $2,500 to $5,250 a month, much less than their American and European colleagues, even after adjustments for the lower cost of living in Israel.

Mr. Hacohen said the low pay had contributed to a "brain drain," with some 3,000 Israeli professors now working abroad, compared with 4,500 still in their own country.

"The negotiations broke down because we have asked for one thing from the beginning, that there be a mechanism to ensure there will be no more erosion of faculty salaries," said Mr. Hacohen. "Salaries rise automatically in the public sector. That doesn't happen among academics."

An education ministry official criticized the professors for going on strike instead of continuing talks. The walkout "will unnecessarily harm the students and the higher education system," the official said.

The president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Menachem Magidor, said he had some sympathy for the professors' plight, but he said their decision to strike was "counterproductive."

He said the university heads had settled their dispute with the government by compromising on their original demands, and he urged professors to do the same.

"There was some attrition in their salaries, compared with the public sector and definitely with the overall economy," Mr. Magidor said. "But I don’t think it's as large as they claim and I don't think it's realistic to expect to get the full thing now. I think that what would be reasonable would be to have a formula to compensate for some attrition that happened in the past and a guarantee that there will be less or no attrition in the future."

Some classes went ahead on Sunday, taught by part-time or junior staff members who are not represented by the senior-faculty organizations. Students were divided between those concerned about losing yet more hours of study and those who support the lecturers' demands.

Ronit Tirosh, a former director general of the education ministry who is now a member of parliament, called on Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to take radical steps to solve the burgeoning education crisis by reordering the government's priorities and dramatically raising salaries. Ms. Tirosh, who is a member of Mr. Olmert's Kadima Party, conceded that such a move would cost "billions of shekels."

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