Ariel University Center August 15, 2007 (Alex Levac)
Ariel University Center Photo by Alex Levac
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A Council for Higher Education committee on Wednesday rejected a recommendation to recognize Ariel University Center as a full-fledged university - a move lauded by the heads of Israel's universities.

Following a six-hour discussion, the planning and budgeting committee said it saw no need for a new university at present. It added that it is reviewing the structure of higher education in Israel, which is due to be completed by May 2013, and might reconsider the issue then.

The committee's chairman, Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, said Ariel was indeed one of Israel's best institutions in fields where it specializes, so it should be granted a chance for further development.

Technically, the planning and budgeting committee, known by its Hebrew acronym Vatat, doesn't make the final decision; it merely sends a recommendation back to the Council for Higher Education - Judea and Samaria, which will make a final decision on July 17.

The latter body, which has authority over Ariel because the university center is located in the West Bank, has already recommended approving the upgrade to a full university.

But because Vatat has exclusive authority over state funding for institutions of higher education, a university not recognized by Vatat would find it virtually impossible to survive financially. Thus Vatat's decision will almost certainly be accepted.

Prof. Amos Altshuler, who chairs the Council for Higher Education - Judea and Samaria, said he was disappointed by the decision, which he claimed was based on "extraneous considerations."

Ariel's upgrade has been vehemently opposed by Israel's existing universities, which fear that having another university would reduce their state funding. It has also been opposed by many people on the left, who object to Ariel because of its location in the West Bank.

"I have no doubt at all about the quality of the institution in Ariel," added Altshuler, whose council had previously concluded that Ariel met all the relevant academic requirements for recognition as a university.

On Tuesday, MK Alex Miller (Yisrael Beiteinu) submitted a bill to circumvent Vatat's power over Ariel, since the committee had been widely expected to decide as it did. The bill, which has been co-sponsored by several MKs from Likud, Kadima and Shas, would authorize any institution denied recognition by the Council for Higher Education to appeal to the education minister, who could opt to forward the appeal to the cabinet.

The cabinet would then be authorized to accept the appeal if the institution "meets all the rules set by law for recognizing institutions of higher education," as long as it first hears the council's reasons for rejecting the institution's application. Miller told Haaretz that Vatat had bowed to pressure from existing universities, and its decision was thus essentially political. It is perfectly reasonable to allow the government to decide political questions, he argued.

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, who in the past voiced support for upgrading Ariel, declined to comment on Vatat's decision yesterday.

But Ariel's president, Prof. Dan Meyerstein, harshly criticized the decision. Five years ago, when Ariel was recognized as a university center, it was given a list of goals it needed to meet to become a full university, he said. Now that Ariel has "done everything possible to meet these criteria, there's an expectation that in a properly-run state, that would be the end of the matter."

He, too, accused Vatat of "caving in to the guild of university presidents, which, as always, objects to establishing a new institution."