The student center at Ariel University
The Ariel University Center is a university with a city attached to it. Photo by Eyal Toueg
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Eyal Toueg
Despite the chancellor's estimation that only 20 percent of the students at the center are religiously observant, many of the hunched-over heads in the library showed skullcaps. Photo by Eyal Toueg

When Ron Nachman, the mayor of Ariel, talks about his vision for the Ariel University Center, located in the West Bank settlement of Ariel and due to receive the permanent status of a research university soon, he gets caught up in lofty, distant goals.

He compares Ariel University with Princeton University, one of the top eight universities in the United States and a place that enjoys endowment capital of $13 billion. His basis for drawing a line between himself and the Ivy League? Both schools are named after the small towns where they make their homes. You can't fight him there: Ariel University Center, where 10,000 regular and 3,000 preparatory students study – is located in a city with only 19,000 inhabitants. Ariel, therefore, is destined to become the smallest city in Israel with its own university.

The Ariel University Center is a university with a city attached to it. One trip down its corridors, however, is enough to dispel any comparisons to an American Ivy League institution. The campus is still under development, and wide swaths of it look like a construction site. There are unpaved roads and ad hoc parking spaces.

The lecture halls, teaching space and library at Ariel are mostly housed in improvised prefabricated buildings, all of which were originally built as part of a planned industrial zone. When that zone failed, the dull, squatting buildings were converted for university use.

The so-called student dorms are in fact one massive caravan, and the library – the heart of any center of learning – is small and cramped. A new library is in the works, and its concrete skeleton looms over the lower campus.

According to Ariel University Chancellor Yigal Cohen-Orgad, the growth is just beginning. He says that only a quarter of the planned university area has been built, and plans for the rest of the area are far from being realized. Earning permanent university status, he says, will be a watershed for the university, and money will pour in to supplement the planned growth.

We visited Ariel on a hot day during its annual summer vacation, when there were only a few students roaming the campus. None of these stragglers seemed too excited about the looming status change; they were too busy being holed up in the library, furiously typing out term papers or doing last-minute exam cramming amid mountains of books.

Despite Cohen-Orgad’s estimation that only 20 percent of the students at the center are religiously observant, many of the hunched-over heads in the library showed skullcaps. According to Cohen-Orgad, the university also enrolls 500 Arab students, but when we approached one female student wearing a hijab, she refused to be interviewed for this article.

Every student we did speak to said the same thing: They chose to study at Ariel not for ideological reasons, but for practical ones. The admission requirements were less daunting, they said. The cost of living in this region was lower, and the school was close to the center of the country. The fact that travel to Ariel requires passing two IDF checkpoints didn't seem to faze anyone.

Not much is missing these days for Ariel to become a full-fledged university. The decision has already been approved by the Judea and Samaria Council for Higher Education, which was established for the specific purpose of overseeing Ariel. The only formality that remains is the signature of the GOC Central Command, the official authority of the areas beyond the Green Line that are under IDF control.

But Israeli academics have been launching a vigorous campaign against the declaration. The committee of the seven Israeli university presidents has been sending letters to the prime minister. For them this struggle is, at the end of a day, a struggle over money – the money that will determine the face of Israeli academia over the coming years. Even the Council for Higher Education’s Planning and Budgets Committee, headed by Professor Manuel Trajtenberg, vigorously opposed the move. Trajtenberg himself argued that it would create major, immediate and long-term damage for all Israeli academia.

The financial impact that comes from declaring an Israeli academic institution to be a university is immense. From a budget of NIS 7.5 billion for higher education divided by the committee, only around 1 billion is allocated to colleges, with the rest going to universities.

The budgeting differences stem from the fact that Israeli colleges were intended primarily for teaching, while universities receive numerous research grants. Like other colleges, Ariel's budget has been calculated based on a lower estimate of students than the number that actually study there. Therefore, their budget was lower. This situation does not exist in universities.

The yearly budget given by the state to Ariel University Center currently stands at NIS 113 million per year, slightly less than the Open University (NIS 128 million), and much more than any other college. Aside from the government funding, tuition fees paid by students yield Ariel around NIS 92 million a year (NIS 10,000 per annum for each student). Around NIS 37 million comes from research grants and donations, resulting in a total budget of NIS 242 million for the institution.

Moving forward, the numbers don’t add up. At Ariel they estimate today that to become a university an initial NIS 130 million budget increase will be enough for the first stage. This is what the university center is eligible for from the committee, according to the criteria of budget allocation for universities, and based on the current number of students in Ariel. But it doesn't look as if this money will arrive in the foreseeable future.

Mid-month, the finance minister told the education minister that he intends to transfer only NIS 50 million to Ariel over the next two years (NIS 20 million in the first year and NIS 30 million in the second), without so much as an explanation.
Sources involved in planning the budgets for other universities estimate that Ariel needs NIS 180 million per annum in order to carry out the changes in personnel and infrastructure its new status would require. One way or another, in light of the expectation that enrollment at Ariel will balloon, these amounts are expected to swell to levels of hundreds of millions of shekels in the coming years. A visit to the academic center proves that even despite being under-funded, Ariel has managed to perform near miracles when it comes to academic achievements. But it's not certain that this will continue to be the case in light of the funding it requires.

‘We'll sleep a little better’

When Cohen-Orgad – who held the position of finance minister during the 1980s when inflation was at hundreds of percent – stands in front of the map and presents the university’s expansion plans, he has a vision for the future. By 2025, he says, Ariel will double its number of students to 20,000, fully utilizing the 500 dunams (about 500,000 square meters) of its central area by practically tripling the built-up areas to 200,000 square meters.

He looks at the 1,800 dormitory beds currently in place and envisions 7,000 in their place. Should the university reach its enrollment goals, annual operating cost will about 1 billion shekels.

"After all this development the university will be four times bigger," says Cohen-Orgad. "The demand is immense. In 25 years, this institution endured through two intifadas, but our student numbers and our budgets continue to grow by an average of 7 to 8 percent each year. We achieved what we did in spite of being underfunded as a college."

Nothing new under the Samaria sun

According to Cohen-Orgad, the objections Ariel is facing as it tries to become a university are nothing unique. Every university in Israel's history, he claims, have faced similar hurdles.

"In the last 70 years or so, the establishment of each new university was met by outspoken explanations from the existing universities of why [its establishment] was unnecessary, harmful and irrelevant," he says. "When Tel Aviv University was founded, Hebrew University vigorously opposed it. When Bar-Ilan [University] was founded, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv collaborated in protesting its establishment. Throughout the history of university politics, over decades, the existing institutions have always found a good reason to oppose the establishment of new ones."

‘The dangerous politicization of education.’

The years 2000 to 2010 are called the lost decade for Israeli academia. Student-faculty ratios shot up, and faculties watched as the brain drain hit hard and their best and brightest left the country.

To reach their own target, universities need to recruit some 1,500 senior faculty to make up for those who left. They are still picking up the pieces, and there is real fear on the ground that throwing a new university into the works will derail all of their progress thus far.

As the committee of presidents put it in a letter to the finance minister, "To put it bluntly: If we could restructure the university system we wouldn’t establish seven research universities; but four or five. But we cannot turn back the clock."
Considering Israel's small population, it has a huge number of universities. There is roughly 1 university for every million citizens, whereas in the United States, or a ratio of .89 per million citizens. In the U.S., the ratio is .66 – 25 percent lower.

"The budgetary model the seven research universities are based on isn’t suitable for eight [universities], and we need to find a way to solve this," says Professor Peretz Lavie, president of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. "Those greater than I defined the decade between 2000 and 2010 as the lost decade of higher education. And now a decision has been passed without anyone really looking into whether we actually need another research university."

Lavie also points out that there are some unkosher aspects about Ariel's admission process, namely that the chairman of the Judea and Samaria Council for Higher Education is also the head of the committee that recommended Ariel's status be upgraded.

"You don't set up a university this way," he says.

Another major factor, Lavie adds, is the political significant of making Ariel into a university. After all, he insists, this would be an Israeli institute of higher education established over the green line.

"Of all the damage that would come from this decision, the worst would come from the problematic attachment of Israel's political and academic worlds," he says. "The planning and budgets committee and the CHE were set up specifically to keep a firewall between the political world and academia. Now, with this decision, they have bypassed that barrier and forged the two together."

The Israeli government, the same body which passed a law declaring that only objective bodies could rule on matters of recognition of academic institutions, is now violating its own ruling, says Professor Aliza Shenhar, rector of the Jezreel Valley College.

"There need to be criteria that define how a college can become a university. There are none," she says. "It may be that other colleges would have also been able to become universities if they had the opportunity to compete and submit their candidacy. This breaches the equality between the institutions."

When politics come into play, Shenhar says, higher institution has a whole is threatened.

"It's incredibly dangerous to politicize higher education," she says. "Competition between universities is a good thing, but there need to be clear criteria for that competition. There was no possibility of competing here."
Ariel's supporters, however, see a university as a gateway to all sorts of big things for the city.

"In May 1979 I wrote a memo to [Former Prime Minister Menachem] Begin, laying out my vision to establish a city in Samaria," Nachman, the mayor, says proudly.

"The city, I said at the time, should have a road accessing the highway, a connection to the sea or an airport, and a university. This does huge things for the branding of the city. The university contributes to the city, increases demand for housing and encourages people to come and visit and see what Ariel is. A person who comes to study here becomes our fan. And then, instead of Ariel being a sleepy city, coffee shops and restaurants open up and it becomes a university city. Success brings more success."