Friday, 31 October 2008

Israeli Universities to Open on Time, as Strike Is Settled


Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel averted a nationwide university strike on Thursday, just three days before the scheduled beginning of the new academic year, by intervening at the last minute to direct the government to restore nearly $140-million to the universities' budgets.

The prime minister's move, which will allow the academic year to begin on time on Sunday, led the country's education minister, Yuli Tamir, to say that she could "finally sleep at night."

University presidents here had announced the cancellation of the semester in a dispute over finances for the country's seven research universities and 30 colleges of higher education, all of which are supported by the government (The Chronicle, October 24).

The universities had demanded that the government, over the next five years, restore $625-million that was cut from their budgets a decade ago. They insisted on the immediate payment of the first 20 percent, or $125-million, with the remainder to follow in subsequent years.

The $625-million repayment was a key recommendation of the Shochat Commission, a government-appointed committee that suggested far-reaching plans to overhaul higher education in Israel more than a year ago (The Chronicle, November 30, 2007).

Ms. Tamir had accused Finance Ministry officials of "dragging their feet" in negotiations that finally broke down on Wednesday.

The Finance Ministry had tried to make the additional money conditional on the universities' accepting structural reforms recommended by the Shochat Commission. But such reforms would have led to a sharp increase in tuition rates, which the government wished to avoid with a general election looming.

Demand for Money

Mr. Olmert, joining the talks between the university heads and Finance Ministry officials for the first time during the protracted crisis, ordered the ministry to transfer the entire $125-million demanded by the universities, plus an extra $14-million for new development.

"I have taken a decision, not an easy decision—certainly not for the Finance Ministry—and I appreciate the ability of the ministry to cope with the difficulties which they will face as a result of this decision," said Mr. Olmert.

"The academic year will begin as planned on Sunday," Ms. Tamir told reporters after the meeting. "The prime minister took a brave decision that will enable the year to start and enable the higher-education institutions to appoint new faculty and attract young lecturers back to the country."

"It's a very large amount of money," she admitted. "The projects are vitally essential."

Menachem Magidor, president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and chairman of Israel's Committee of University Presidents, welcomed the resolution of the crisis but warned the Finance Ministry that there would be further trouble if the money did not come through in this or future years, as agreed.

"We welcome the agreement that was achieved today, and we thank Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Education Minister Yuli Tamir for their role in bringing about a solution to this crisis in the higher-education system," Mr. Magidor told The Chronicle. "We must remember that this arrangement only solves the immediate problem in the coming year. We still have to work hard to find a long-term solution to the overall problem over the next five years. We will keep working and maintain our efforts to improve the Israeli higher-education system and provide the best services and conditions for our students."

Student leaders, who had joined with faculty members in protesting the government's failure to meet the demand for funds, breathed a sigh of relief.

"We are happy the school year is beginning as planned and that some of the budget, which was cut over the last few years, was returned to higher education," said Boaz Toporovsky, chairman of the National Union of Israeli Students, who was arrested during a demonstration on Wednesday outside the Parliament. "I hope that now it will be possible to find a long-term and all-inclusive solution for the system."

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