Tel Aviv University - Aviad Bar Nes - May 1, 2012
Tel Aviv University. Photo by Aviad Bar Nes
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Budget cutbacks are delaying the planned expansion of a program that facilitates the return and reabsorption of Israeli scientists who have left the country to work abroad. The opening of two so-called academic excellence centers in the program operated by the Council for Higher Education in Israel has been pushed back until November at the earliest. The launch of eight additional centers scheduled to open this year is being held up by issues relating to the process of choosing the centers by an international committee of experts.

The state budget for higher education was cut by NIS 34 million as part of last August's across-the-board spending reductions: a one-time cut of NIS 20 million from the 2013 budget and a NIS 14 million cut to the system's base budget - a reduction that will be perpetuated in future budget years. In addition, education officials fear that additional cuts could be coming in the course of the year.

The budget for higher education in 2013 currently stands at NIS 7.5 billion. The NIS 34 million reduction was a compromise measure that was reached with the Finance Ministry, which had proposed a cut of NIS 90 million.

The excellence-center program includes advanced research facilities at universities that will be available to leading Israeli and international scientists. The council plans to open up to 30 centers for various fields of study in the next few years. The program's total estimated cost is NIS 1.4 billion, a third of which is to come from the state.

Four centers are in operation. An official announcement of the establishment of 10 additional centers, originally scheduled for September, has been twice since then but is expected soon.

Delaying the opening of the two centers will yield an estimated saving of NIS 5 million.

The council's planning and budgeting committee, headed by Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, also decided to cut NIS 10 million from the roughly NIS 100 million allocated to a recovery plan for universities. The plan is meant to help universities deal with their shaky financial circumstances and their actuarial liabilities which are believed to exceed NIS 26 billion.

In July, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz pledged NIS 50 million to upgrade the Ariel University Center and make it Israel's ninth university. He promised that the outlay would not affect the budgets of the veteran universities. But the new university will need more money in the years to come, and it is up to the planning and budgeting committee of the higher education council to make the funding allocations.

Higher education in Israel has for years been struggling with a dire shortage of senior faculty members, a decline in teaching standards, budgetary erosion and "brain drain," the flight of academics to foreign shores. As part of a reform plan, Israel's state-funded colleges and universities were promised a cash injection of about NIS 7.5 billion over the next five years. The latest budget cuts would seem to cast doubt on these scheduled supplements.

In a response, the Council of Presidents of Israeli Universities said: "There is a multi-year budgeting agreement and we believe, and expect, that the planning and budgeting committee and the government will adhere to it."