CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION
Friday, October 24, 2008
By MATTHEW KALMAN
The heads of Israel's universities have canceled the opening of the academic year, scheduled for November 2, after the government did not restore $125-million in budget cuts.
University heads say the continuing crisis over the financing of Israel's public higher-education institutions, now entering its third academic year, threatens the very fabric of the country's university system.
"The universities are currently incapable of functioning and beginning the academic year," said Menachem Magidor, president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and chairman of Israel's Committee of University Presidents.
The universities are demanding that the government, over the next five years, restore $625-million that was cut from their budget a decade ago. They say they cannot begin the academic year unless the first 20 percent, or $125-million, is paid immediately.
The $625-million repayment, to begin in 2008-9, was a key recommendation by the Shochat Commission, a government-appointed committee that suggested far-reaching plans for reform of higher education in Israel more than a year ago. So far the government has not found time to discuss the commission's findings in depth, nor to implement any of those findings.
The Israeli Ministry of Finance, which has wide independence in negotiating public budgets, has so far agreed to pay only $61-million for this academic year, but have not given out even that amount. Ministry officials are refusing to restore the $625-million that was cut unless the other recommendations of the Shochat Commission are also implemented. Those include an increase in tuition, which Israeli political leaders have declined to endorse in a year in which a general election is likely.
Shutdown 'a Disaster'
"Closing down the research universities is a disaster for us and the students," admitted Mr. Magidor, but he said the universities were left with no choice because of what he called the government's indifference.
The closure will affect 250,000 students at Israel's seven research universities and 30 colleges, all of which are publicly financed.
Earlier this month, the Committee of University Presidents sent out an e-mail message to the 150,000 students under its auspices warning them that the academic year would not begin on time.
"Unfortunately, under the current circumstances following negotiations with the Ministry of Finance, we cannot begin the academic year," the e-mail message said.
"The promises made by the Israeli government—that it would tackle the root of the problem and guarantee the survival of the system for many years to come—have not been fulfilled. Negotiations with the Finance Ministry have not resulted in an accord that would enable the proper function of the universities," it explained.
Yuli Tamir, minister of education, said she supported the universities' demands, but she appeared unable to help.
"Higher education and intellectual wealth are Israel's most important asset, and they mustn't be damaged," she said.
Israeli student leaders said they supported the professors' decision, even though it means that university studies will be disrupted for the third year in succession. Some students are only now finishing exams from last year after delays caused by a 90-day strike by tenured professors.
"The students understand the pressing budget needs," said a spokesperson for the National Union of Israeli Students.
Students and professors say they will stage a joint rally on Monday when the Knesset, Israel's parliament, begins its winter session.