Israel's Finance Minister Pledges Funds to West Bank College, Despite Academic Row

In missive, Yuval Steinitz says state will award University Center at Ariel millions of NIS in the next few years, if its status to university status is approved.

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz intends to provide government funds to the West Bank college, in case its upgrade to university status is vetted by a regional higher education board, Haaretz learned on Sunday.

Last week, officials at several academic colleges protested the "inequitable" process by which the University Center at Ariel is being advanced toward university status - even after the center was initially refused the designation by the Council for Higher Education (CHE) a week before.

The colleges, which protested the expected upgrade for the first time, demanded that any decision made regarding the structure of higher education be transparent.

This includes, they say, upgrades to university status and the creation of a new status, "university center." They also want every college to have an equal opportunity to be evaluated and to prove it meets transparent criteria, and to get recognition and budgets accordingly.

The Judean and Samaria council for higher learning is scheduled to resolve the issue, by either rejecting or accepting the CHE's recommendation.

As was reported in Haaretz at the time, a senior member of the CHE's Planning and Budgeting Committee revealed that Steinitz had promised to transfer NIS 100 million to the Ariel University Center as part of an effort to have it upgraded to university status - bypassing the bodies authorized to deal with funding academic institutions. When this was first reported, Steinitz did not respond.

But on Sunday, in response to a second query, his media adviser said, "No such sum or anything like it was promised for 2013. With that, the finance minister supports turning the center into a university, and, to the degree that it will be helpful, a budgetary solution will have to be found."

Asked if some other amount had been promised, she answered, "There were some suggestions raised, but no promises were made."

On Sunday, a letter sent by Steinitz to Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar indicated that the finance minister in fact intended to fund the college, once its university status is approved.

In the missive, Steinitz said that he intended to bring "to the government's approval, in coordination with the Education Ministry, a special budget plan, allocating NIS 20 million and then NIS 30 million in the 2013 and 2014 budget years, respectively, [a sum] to be increased gradually through several years."

"I believe that this letter will make it easier for the relevant bodies to approve the foundation of Israel's eight university in the city of Ariel," the finance minister wrote, calling such a move "historic" and saying that it will "contribute much to Israel.