The Council for Higher Education yesterday presented a plan designed to reform Israeli higher education. The plan calls for an additional NIS 7.5 billion in state spending on higher education over the next six years, of which NIS 1.35 billion will be added to the two-year state budget for 2011 and 2012.

The plan, which has been in the works for the past year, is designed to address the decline in the level of research and teaching at Israel's universities and their financial problems. It is also meant to deal with other problems, such as the "brain drain" of highly skilled researchers to universities overseas and accessibility to higher education for ultra-Orthodox Jews, Israeli Arabs and residents of outlying parts of the country.

The Finance Ministry has agreed to provide NIS 630 million in the first year of the plan and NIS 737 million in the second. These funds were made available through cuts in planned increases to the Defense Ministry budget.

Funding is slated to increase still further in subsequent years, subject to proper implemention of the plan's other aspects and an evaluation of its contribution to the education system. Specifically, it will rise by NIS 1.08 billion in the third year, 2013, by NIS 1.35 billion in 2014, and by NIS 1.66 billion in 2015. In the final year of the project, 2016, the higher education budget will be boosted by NIS 2.03 billion.

The plan was unveiled a day after talks between the CHE and student representatives ended without agreement. The negotiations with the National Union of Israeli Students have been underway for the past year, in an effort to agree on a package deal that would also involve a hike in tuition and increased student involvement in the higher education system.

Due to the lack of an overall agreement with the students, some elements on which agreement had been reached were not included in the plan presented yesterday. Yesterday's presentation included only the plan's principal components; the rest remains to be fleshed out.

The chairman of the student union, Boaz Toporovsky, welcomed the additional state funding for higher education but said the breakdown of talks with the students constituted a lost opportunity for wider reform.

The chairman of the CHE's Planning and Budgeting Committee, Manuel Trajtenberg, told a press conference yesterday that the plan would provide a "dramatic" budget increase of 30% at the end of the six years. Last year, the higher education budget was NIS 6.9 billion.

"The plan's goals are excellence and quality in research and teaching, acquiring high-quality human capital for the [higher education] system, and making the system accessible to weaker population sectors, including the ultra-Orthodox and minority populations," he said.

Trajtenberg began developing the plan immediately upon assuming his post as head of the Planning and Budgeting Committee last September. He worked in close cooperation with both the experts on his committee and Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz. Sa'ar is chairman of the CHE.

Trajtenberg said the current situation made the plan essential, after what he called a "lost decade" during which the higher education system declined. He also said the plan will represent the first revision of the system's economic model in 20 years.

University of Haifa President Aaron Ben-Ze'ev, who also chairs the council of university presidents, said the plan deals with a variety of issues, including excellence in research, encouraging Israeli scientists abroad to return to Israel and improving ties among research institutions.

He said the higher education system has been hurt not only by budget cuts, but also by internal strife within the system.

"But over the past year," he added, "relations between institutes of higher education and external bodies such as government ministries have become positive and businesslike, and this has made it possible to move forward. All of us understand the magnitude of the hour and the need to come together for the good of the system."

At the news conference at which the plan was unveiled, Sa'ar called it a new era, noting that the proposed budget increases follow "a decade of very severe erosion in the [higher education] budget." He said this erosion had had serious consequences, including a shortage of faculty positions, a brain drain from the country, a worsening of faculty-student relations and an aging of university faculties. Thus the plan, he said, came at a "critical time."

Steinitz said students will receive a better education as a result of the plan. But he stressed that after the first two years, the additional funding would be conditional upon the universities' implementation of the plan's other reforms, as well as evidence of their success.

These reforms, he said, would inject greater competition into the system, because budgets would be awarded on a competitive basis, with the determining factor being quality rather than quantity.