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Monday, 23 March 2009

Blistering Audit Blames Israeli Universities for Hiding Multibillion-Dollar Deficits

CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION
Daily News Blog: March 23, 2009

Jerusalem — Israel’s universities have been accused of hiding huge budget deficits and of fiscal mismanagement in a scathing report by the country’s state comptroller, who oversees public institutions.

The official, Micha Lindenstrauss, said the country’s publicly financed universities ran up a deficit of 17.9 billion shekels (nearly $4.5-billion) last year but reported a deficit of only 1.59 billion shekels (about $400-million).

“These institutions go to great lengths in order to intercept any attempts made by the supervisor to enforce efficient supervision,” Mr. Lindenstrauss said in a report issued last week. “Academic freedom does not justify a lack of fiscal restraint or gross deficits.”

He said the major causes of the deficits were generous employment terms and pension plans for senior academic staff members.

After the universities paid their employees the unauthorized additional salary benefits, they were left with less money for their primary purpose, academic instruction and research, he noted. “You cannot cite academic freedom broadly to justify improper management when it has nothing to do with academic issues,” Mr. Lindenstrauss was reported as saying in Haaretz, a daily newspaper.

Mr. Lindenstrauss also said that funds earmarked for building international scientific relations, money that is supposed to be for research, were instead used for other purposes, including to pay retired academics, the families of deceased professors, and senior administrators, The Jerusalem Post reported.

Israeli universities have demanded and been granted hundreds of millions of dollars in extra funds to make up for budget cuts carried out under the previous government.

The comptroller also accused the bodies entrusted with overseeing higher education — the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council of Higher Education and the Finance Ministry — of not doing enough to supervise state-backed educational institutions.

The Council of Higher Education acknowledged the importance of the comptroller’s report and said in a statement that its findings would lead to change in work arrangements and increased efficiency in higher education.

Mr. Lindenstrauss also said the Committee of University Presidents bore specific responsibility for the problems outlined in his report. He said the committee had refused to allow his researchers access to its budgets and had yielded requested information only after being warned that continued foot-dragging would be considered as an attempt to thwart the investigation. He said the size of the deficit was known to the committee for years, but it neglected its responsibility to report the situation to the public.

The Committee of University Presidents denied any wrongdoing but said it was closely examining the report. “We shall act promptly and determinedly to make corrections,” the committee said in a statement. “The universities’ presidents cooperated with the comptroller and gave him all the information to carry out the audit, which is why [the presidents] were so surprised by his comments and rejects his claim that there was a lack of cooperation.” —Matthew Kalman

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