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Another Crisis Over Funding Looms for Israeli Higher Education

Haifa, Israel — Presidents of all seven of Israel’s public universities have told students to stay at home on November 2, the first day of the 2008-2009 academic year. The leaders are vowing that there will be no classes or lectures during the first week of school, unless government funding for higher education is dramatically increased.

The shutdown, the third protest on campus in three academic years, highlights what university officials contend is eight years of heavy funding cuts by the government. Two years ago, students went on strike for six weeks and last year there was a 13-week lecturers’ strike. This year, the presidents are threatening to close libraries and halt research by the school year’s second week, if the government does not provide $100 million.

The presidents are furious because the government has acknowledged that universities are deteriorating and promised that it would add $100 million to its annual funding every year for five years. However, the government made this boost conditional on an increase in tuition fees, which in Israel are not set by universities but by the government. The government has failed to implement this increase.

“We are in the absurd situation that we are facing financial devastation because the government has not met its own precondition for releasing funds to us,” Zvi Galil, president of Tel Aviv University, told the Forward.

A spokesman for the treasury, while declining to comment on the link between increases in funding and tuition, said he expects the school closure to be averted. “Solutions to disputes like this are often found at the last minute, and we hope this happens in this case,” he said.

Since 2000, Israeli universities have seen their budgets shrink by 20%, despite an increase in enrollment by more than 10% to 250,000 students. This disparity leaves the country’s annual higher-education budget at $1.3 billion, roughly equivalent to the costs of running a single, large American university, and far less than some American universities. For example, Penn State University’s operating budget for 2008-2009 is $3.6 billion. Meanwhile, the number of tenured academics in Israeli universities has decreased from 5,400 to 4,500.

Last year, the report of the Shohat Committee, a government task force convened to look at higher education, sounded alarm bells. It called for $640 million to be added to university budgets. The government was to contribute three quarters of this amount (phased in as $100 million a year over five years). The rest of the funding was to come from almost doubling annual tuition fees from $2,400 to $4,600.

Although the government accepted the report’s recommendations, it refuses to contribute its share of the increase, while also refusing to raise tuition fees. In the background, treasury sources acknowledge that the reason for government inaction is political — the current administration is weak and cautious about instituting a measure that is thought to be widely unpopular, especially with elections on the horizon, according to the sources.

The official position is much more optimistic. “The gap between us and the universities is not that large and we hope that 2008-2009 will be a bridge year and that the budgets will be higher and in relation, students must pay a higher fee,” a treasury spokesman told the Forward, declining to comment further.

Many academics view this tactic as a way to pressure universities to raise tuition, and deflect the blame from the government. “It’s just politics — there’s no connection between the two,” said Zvi Hacohen, a Ben Gurion University academic and head of the Union of Senior Faculty, which represents virtually all tenured academics.

However, the university presidents are careful not to advocate higher fees. “Our point is that, wherever it comes from, the government has a responsibility to deliver more funding to universities,” said Galil.

With the presidents taking this stance, the Israel Union of Students, which organized the 2007 student strike and which strongly opposes increased fees, is keen to present a united front. “We support them,” said spokeswoman Efrat Brosilobski. “We know that if we don’t, the budget will hurt us — it will go on affecting our science labs, our libraries and all the things we need.”

But there are cracks on this front among local unions that are unhappy with the potential closure. “The universities must open no matter what,” said Shlomi Shem-Tov, president of Bar Ilan University Student Union. “A strike is not necessary this time — we have already seen that strikes don’t bring results.”

The other main group on campus, Hacohen’s Union of Senior Faculty, which organized the faculty strike last academic year, is backing the shutdown. “It’s about eight years too late — we should have done this eight years ago when the budget cuts began,” said Hacohen. “There comes a point where there’s nothing else to do, we’ve no more leverage than not to open.”

The dispute could spell disaster for the country’s beleaguered students, most of whom cannot remember an academic year that ran as scheduled. In addition to the lecturers’ strike last year and their own strike the year before, they faced disruption the year before that, when exams were postponed due to the Second Lebanon War.

On each occasion when time is lost during the academic year, it is made up during the summer. While proving frustrating for students, this action also takes a heavy financial toll. Most Israeli students only enter university when they are well into their 20s, when their parents are less inclined to support them, as they must complete two or three years of compulsory army service first. 

“This means financial crisis for students, since if a semester continues into the summer, they are unable to work during the summer, and many are reliant on summer income,” said Brosilobski. “In addition, students take apartments near the university, only to find that this is unnecessary as they are not attending university — and then finding that they need to rent for longer in to the summer.”

Alon Solar, 24, a second year economics student at Tel Aviv University, said: “We can’t work during a strike as we can’t tell an employer when we’re available until. This is tough. A few people I know have dropped out because not getting to work during summers, they can’t afford fees and rent.”

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