University Strike Threatens Israel’s ‘Natural Resource’ — Brainpower

By Nathan Jeffay

Published January 16, 2008, issue of January 18, 2008.
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UPDATE: A deal was reached January 18 to end the Israeli university strike. See our update here.

Haifa, Israel - During what was supposed to be the last week of the semester, the Haifa University campus was almost deserted. Students and lecturers were missing, thanks to a 13-week strike by teachers that is causing a round of national soul-searching.

The strike was called by the Union of Senior Faculty and has taken all 4,700 tenured academics at the country’s seven public universities away from their teaching duties.

Last Sunday, university presidents failed in a bid to force the lecturers into labor court and back to work. Since then, these presidents have said that they will shut down campuses altogether Sunday unless the strike is resolved by noon on Friday.

The strike, ostensibly about lecturers’ pay, has turned into a bitter battle between academics and government over the future of Israeli universities, with academics rejecting budget cuts and a governmental move to introduce business-style management structures.

The crisis is hitting universities that were founded to be homes for the best Jewish minds of the Diaspora — a place for the Zionist dream of “the ingathering of the exiles.”

“Israel does not have natural resources,” said Hanoch Flum, a striking professor from Ben Gurion University in the Negev. “Our academia serves national goals of developing research, which is a foundation of our economy.”

Israeli universities have not been without their successes in recent years. In 2005, Robert Aumann, an economist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, brought home the Nobel Prize. And according to the number of citations in leading scientific journals, Israel places fourth in international rankings of scientific publications per capita.

But the problems — and cutbacks — being protested by professors appear to be leading to a brain drain from Israeli universities. In 2002, 0.9% of academics left the country; by 2004 it was 1.7%, and the figure is thought to have risen since.

The current labor struggle began in earnest back in 2000. After three years of deliberation, a government committee tasked with reforming the universities took aim at a number of traditional elements of university life, including elected deans and an autonomous senate. These features of the university contribute to “the creation of inertia without a real attempt at reform,” the committee said.

Over the past decade, the state has slashed budgets for research and ongoing operations by more than $300 million, leaving the country’s annual higher-education budget at $1.3 billion, roughly equivalent to the running costs of many American universities. (For example, it is far less than half the budget of Penn State University).

In addition to the cuts, politicians from across the spectrum have been on a campaign to introduce elements of privatization to universities. This has resulted in shrinking faculties like the one in humanities at Tel Aviv University, which has lost a fifth of its staff over the past five years. All this, the striking lecturers claim, is distorting the legacy of the People of the Book into that of the People of the Bookkeepers.

“Informally, this is a struggle to save Israeli academia from being underfunded, privatized, neglected and reliant on an army of academics with private contracts and little job security,” said Ilan Gur-Ze’ev, a Haifa University professor and a leading activist in the strike.

“It is a struggle to restore a situation where Israeli universities thrive and being an academic carries social standing as well as a decent salary,” Gur-Ze’ev added.

In the same year that the government concluded its findings about the universities, Gur-Ze’ev founded the Inter-Senate Committee of the Universities for the Protection of Academic Independence. Gur-Ze’ev’s group concluded that the government committee “ignored the decisive contribution of the universities to the national economy and security. It ignored the fact that through higher education, we have turned from an agricultural to an industrial state with high technology and increased tenfold the GNP.”

The committee stressed that the Jewish national home was never conceived just as a political entity, but also to be an intellectual home.

For seven years, Gur-Ze’ev and his fellow campaigners have managed to hold off some reforms, such as a 2006 plan to scrap tenure altogether, but have had little success derailing the plan completely or securing increased funding.

“We do not have any advocates in politics; academia is not a popular issue,” he said.

The strike began last October, after the government failed to meet lecturers’ demands to enter into negotiations for a new contract — a process that has now begun.

Student union heads have protested alongside academics. Police detained Gil Goldenberg, chairman of Tel Aviv University’s union, during a rally near his campus last week, as he appealed through the media for “an end to the butchering of higher education in Israel.”

The strikers are standing firm and were clear on their demands during the latest negotiations, which collapsed Tuesday afternoon. They expect compensation for the fall in their salaries over the past decade, which they estimate in real terms at 35% (their latest demand is 21% of a decade’s pay). They also want academics, like the rest of the public sector, to receive guaranteed annual pay increases of around 2.5%.

“We cannot continue on [the] same track of our salaries being eroded all the time, and it is unacceptable that the government refuses to compensate us and to address this,” Ronnie Ellenblum, one of the seven academics leading the strike, told the Forward on Tuesday as his negotiating team walked out of the treasury.

The strike appears to have backed the treasury into a corner, particularly given that it overlapped with a nine-week teachers’ strike that ended only last month. It also closely follows a six-week students’ strike last May.

And there are the financial costs of a lost semester. The Manufacturers Association of Israel has come up with the figure of NIS 350 million ($94.3 million) for the loss.

Flum says that losing a semester would be a “national disaster.” But he adds that even if the strike ends, unless the underlying issues are dealt with, the country will stay on a course for disaster.

“We educate and train people who later become part and parcel of the work force — for example in high tech,” Flum said. “We feed industry with patents and developments. And humanities and social sciences our research develops Israeli culture and brings Israel renown through the world. If academia continues to be neglected, we will lose this.”

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