Tel Aviv University - Aviad Bar Nes - May 1, 2012
Tel Aviv University. Photo by Aviad Bar Nes
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The State Comptroller’s Office warned in a report released on Tuesday that university programs catering to special sectors, including employees of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Defense, may be leading to unregulated privatization of higher education.

The Israeli Council of Higher Learning has “failed to fill its role and thus impaired its ability to protect the public interest,” the report said, adding that it took the council over a decade to deal with the issue of university programs run by universities for special groups without government oversight.

Five years after finally deciding to forbid the practice, the ban remains unenforced, the report said.

Examining programs in Tel Aviv and Bar-Ilan University, the Comptroller’s Office also found cases in which professors were paid three to eight times more than the law permits.

The special university programs are unbudgeted academic islands operating in publicly funded universities that use university funds without the required authorization of the council.

Students attending these programs pay higher tuition fees than students in regular programs, and in return receive shorter routes to a degree or easier admission than in standard programs in some cases. The programs cater to groups from particular work places, often in the public sector.

Of the programs offered by Bar-Ilan without the council’s permission, three are programs catering to employees of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of Defense. Disregarding the council regulations, only eight of the 21 instructors teaching in the programs hold doctorate degrees, and not one of them is employed according to regulations. In one case, the wages paid are 100 percent higher than permitted by the council.

Citing growth in the number of programs "without the existence of proper oversight practices and without proper review taking place,” the report concluded that “it seems that unintended, unregulated de facto privatization of higher education is taking place.”

According to the report, for years universities have continued to open and operate new programs, and although the council knew of “the improper practice, it did nothing to change it.”

Regarding “target audience specific programs,” the report found that the council “didn’t check to see that the universities were complying with its decision to limit these programs.”

During the last school year, the study showed, Tel Aviv University offered students 19 extra-budgetary programs, without having applied to the Council of Higher Learning for approval of any of them.

At Bar-Ilan University, 30 such programs were offered, in which “the university set acceptance requirements lower than in normal study programs and even lower than the Council of Higher Learning requires,” without permission.

In response to the State Comptroller report, the Council for Higher Education stated that "over the past few years, and in light of massive budget cuts and an influx of students, the programs catered to special sectors allowed the system to include more students without causing it to implode."

"Today, the Council for Higher Education compels the universities to submit plans for new programs. The council also disallowed universities to open programs that use funds from outside the budget allocated to them, unless they receive the approval of the council ahead of time," said the council, adding that it "intends to study the State Comptroller report in a diligent manner and to implement its suggestions."