Defense Minister Ehud Barak on Wednesday ordered a college in the West Bank town of Ariel to be recognized as a "university center," thereby winning praise from the right but an outraged response from both the political left and many academics.

The move is also likely to grant new momentum to overseas supporters of an academic boycott of Israel, leaders of the campaign against the boycott said. However, they added, it will not change the legal realities that have so far prevented any such boycott from taking effect.

The decision was vehemently opposed by the Council for Higher Education, which oversees all colleges and universities inside the Green Line. But because the Ariel University Center of Samaria is located in the West Bank, it is subordinate to a different, parallel, body, the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria - which, like all Israeli institutions in the West Bank, is formally subordinate to the Israel Defense Forces' GOC Central Command, who in turn answers to the defense minister. The CHE-JS approved Ariel's status upgrade back in 2007, and yesterday, Barak - who is also the Labor chairman - ordered GOC Avi Mizrahi to confirm this.

Recognition as a university center moves the college closer to full recognition as Israel's eighth university, and Barak's approval of this step had been part of the coalition agreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party and a third coalition member, Yisrael Beiteinu.

Aside from prestige, the main advantage that comes from being a university rather than a college is substantially higher funding. But the CHE, in keeping with its protest over the move, announced that Ariel would continue to receive the same amount from the state that it does now. And since the CHE controls the distribution of state funds to all academic institutions, it has the power to make this decision stick.

Last year, Ariel received NIS 75 million from the state, just under a third of its total budget of NIS 240 million. That, due to its unusually large student body, is more than most colleges get.

Prof. Itzhak Galnoor, a former deputy chairman of the CHE, slammed Barak's decision. "The term 'university center' doesn't exist in Israel's law books," he said. "We're in an anomalous situation, where a college outside the state's borders thinks it's possible to write its own rules. The defense minister would have done better to consult the CHE before exercising his authority over educational matters, about which he understands even less than CHE members understand about security issues."

Former education minister Prof. Yuli Tamir was also up in arms, saying the CHE should have been given the final word, and its opposition was well-known. Moreover, she charged, the upgrade will allow Ariel to take funding away from existing universities.

Ariel's president, Prof. Dan Meyerstein, said the college never accepted the argument that the CHE-JS decision to upgrade its status required confirmation by the GOC Central Command, "but now, it seems, that's happened, too."

He also stressed that all of Ariel's study programs are approved first by the CHE-JS, and then by the CHE, and the latter has never yet rejected any program approved by the former. However, he readily agreed that the term "university center" - and how it differs from an ordinary college - is unclear.

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, who chairs the CHE, said he "hoped and expected" that Ariel would receive full university status in the next few years. Other CHE members, however, were less enthusiastic - adding that the council had been promised no such thing would happen without it being consulted.

The upgrade process effectively began in 2005, when the cabinet, led by then prime minister Ariel Sharon, passed a resolution saying it "saw national importance" in converting the college to a university. In late 2006, a subcommittee of the CHE-JS concluded that the college "is effectively functioning as a university in every respect" and recommended giving it the temporary status of a "university center" for three years. In summer 2007, the CHE-JS adopted this recommendation.

The subcommittee was comprised of six senior professors from other universities, including Nobel Prize laureate Yisrael (Robert) Aumann and Israel Prize laureates Daniel Sperber and Yuval Ne'eman. The latter is also a former MK, from the now-defunct Tehiya party. At the time, a member of the CHE said, "They're all people of the first rank in research, and they're also all right-wing in their views."

The CHE, however, flatly refused to recognize the CHE-JS decision, because it "contradicts our decision that as of today, and for the next five years, there is no academic need for another university," in the words of the council's powerful Planning and Budgeting Committee.