March 23, 2010
By Matthew Kalman
Israeli government ministers, education officials, and students announced on Tuesday the creation of a new joint planning and negotiating mechanism designed to end years of turmoil in the country's higher-education system.
"We are talking about a revolutionary reform in higher education," said Boaz Toporovsky, chairman of the National Union of Israeli Students.
Under the new arrangement, government, university, and student representatives will sit on permanent committees to jointly plan developments in higher education and reach agreement on tuition rates.
The government will provide 72 percent of the higher-education budget, with tuition contributing the remaining 28 percent. The government has pledged not to raise tuition in the next three years without students' consent.
As a confidence-building gesture, the government will refund some $27-million in tuition to students who have attended college in the past two years.
"It is very important to bring about a significant increase in the resources available to the system that has seen cuts in the past," Gideon Saar, the education minister, said at a news conference in Jerusalem. "There is now an urgent need to increase the teaching staff, to increase the ratio of teaching staff to students, and to expand the budget."
The Israeli higher-education system has been hit over the past decade by cuts equal to some $300-million, or about 20 percent of the budget. That has sparked fears about the future of the country's publicly financed university and college system, which enrolls some 220,000 students.
Students went on strike for 41 days in the spring of 2007 to protest planned tuition increases; tenured professors staged a 90-day strike of their own the following semester in pursuit of a pay rise; and junior professors called a work stoppage in May 2008 demanding better wages and pension rights.
The disruptions took place against the background of a 2007 government inquiry known as the Shochat Report. It recommended sweeping reforms in the financing of higher education, in part to reverse a significant brain drain. At least 25 percent of all Israeli academics are employed by American, not Israeli, universities.
Students had protested their exclusion from most of the deliberations of the Shochat Committee. On Tuesday, Manuel Trajtenberg, chairman of the planning and budgeting committee of the Israeli Council for Higher Education, conceded that had been a mistake.
He said the new mechanism would oblige the government to provide substantially more money for the higher-education system.
Mr. Trajtenberg said the goal is to create 500 new teaching jobs over the next five years, as well as replace 1,000 professors due to retire. In the process, the student-to-professor ratio would drop from 25-to-1 to 19-to-1.