Ariel college - Alex Levac
Ariel college campus in the West Bank. Photo by Alex Levac
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Tomer Appelbaum
Yuval Steinitz Photo by Tomer Appelbaum

Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz promised to allocate more than NIS 100 million to the Ariel University Center, sparking feverish negotiations in which the Council for Higher Education's Planning and Budgeting Committee ultimately offered the West Bank institution three times that amount, a senior committee official said Thursday.

Steinitz declined to comment on the issue. But a year ago, during a visit to the settlement of Ariel, he pledged to do everything he could to find the funding needed to upgrade the center to a full-fledged university, given that money is the main barrier.

The Council for Higher Education - Judea and Samaria, which has responsibility for Ariel because of its West Bank location, has already ruled that the college meets all the academic criteria for an upgrade, but the Planning and Budgeting Committee - which is responsible for funding all higher education institutions - voted against the upgrade on Wednesday, saying Israel doesn't need another university at this time.

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar said: "I have an understanding with the finance minister that this [the money to be given to Ariel] will be an addition to the [existing] budget," he said.

News of the planned funding allocation spurred the budgeting committee, better known by its Hebrew acronym Vatat, to begin negotiations with Ariel in a bid to prevent what one professional on the panel termed a political move that would deal "a mortal blow to the independence of Israel's higher education system."

During these talks, Vatat offered to give Ariel the money that Steinitz had in any case already promised, under a new funding model that would henceforth be applied to all colleges and universities. This model would promise Ariel an extra NIS 300 million over the next five years, depending on its ability to meet certain benchmarks. The first installment, to be paid in the 2013-2014 academic year, would be given on account of an increase in the college's student body, the proposal said.

The new model, which the Council for Higher Education began working on two years ago, would create a third type of institution, the university center, which would be something in between a college and a university. Until Ariel was granted this status by the Council for Higher Education - Judea and Samaria five years ago, no such category existed, and Ariel is still the only institution of this kind.

"The insight was that the dichotomous structure of Israel's higher-education system today is far from reflecting the reality on the ground," a Vatat source said. "The state has a need for applied research, and not just for theoretical research, such as the universities mainly do. This is necessary for industry, government agencies and the defense establishment."

Current model 'too simplistic'

The current model, under which colleges confine themselves to teaching while the universities specialize in research, "is too simplistic" for the country's needs, he added.

The three-layer model, developed with assistance from New York University's Institute for Higher Education Policy, would include a series of funding criteria for university centers. The NIS 300 million promised to Ariel would be gradually disbursed over the next five years as it meets these criteria.

Vatat plans to approve the new model by April 2013. It has also pledged to reconsider Ariel's application to become a university by this date.

The senior Vatat official said that Ariel's negotiating team approved the proposed model, but it was rejected by the university center's management. It was after that rejection that Vatat formally nixed Ariel's bid for an upgrade on Wednesday - and it was after Wednesday's decision that Vatat's written proposal was leaked to the media by senior officials at Ariel, who termed it an attempt to "buy off the institution" after refusing to upgrade its status.

The senior Vatat official responded that accusing his panel of trying to bribe Ariel "crossed the line." Vatat's proposal stipulated that the extra funding, which would be "on top of the budget additions required by the multiyear plan for the higher education system," would be conditioned "on receiving a suitable commitment to Vatat by the Finance Ministry's budget department by the end of July 2012."

"What lies behind this document is that if the treasury intends to give extra money in any case, we insist on maintaining the framework and the definitions, based on a gradual funding model," the senior Vatat official said. "Steinitz promised more than NIS 100 million, but we said there's no such thing: There's no funding model that allows this."

Under Vatat's proposed model, any institution that meets the relevant criteria will now be eligible for recognition as a university center and increased funding. "And of course, based on its meeting the criteria, Ariel is included," the official added.