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Progress was made Thursday in talks to resolve the ongoing strike by secondary school teachers, for the first time since it began nine days ago, according to both the Education Ministry and the Secondary School Teachers Organization (SSTO). But university professors are planning to begin their own strike on Sunday, barring dramatic developments over the weekend.

Sources in the SSTO and the Education Ministry stressed it would be premature to say that the strike in the junior high and high schools will end soon. "But there's a basis for an outline that could lead to the end of the strike," said one.

SSTO Chairman Ran Erez said that "unlike in previous meetings, this time, the discussion was substantive, and the atmosphere was good. Finance and education ministries' representatives heard our proposals for solving the crisis, and we heard about the government's problems in acceding to our demands. We agreed that at the next meeting, each side would present creative proposals for ending the impasse."

The union is demanding an immediate 15 percent raise for all its members, but the ministries say this exceeds the agreement already signed with the Teachers Union, which represents elementary school teachers.

Erez said his teachers are willing to work extra hours in exchange for more money, but "the first problem is that it is not yet clear how much money the treasury is willing to allocate for this, and the second obstacle will be defining the extra work."

The union objects to additional frontal teaching hours; instead, it proposes spending more time working with individual students and small groups. "If every teacher took responsibility for two students in the school, and took the trouble to work with them personally, that would solve a large portion of the violence, discipline and dropout problems in the high schools," argued a source in the SSTO.

Education Ministry officials, however, stressed that the teachers will have to prove that they really worked extra hours to obtain the proposed raise.

The threatened university strike, which involves all senior academic staff, would prevent the universities from opening the new academic year on Sunday as scheduled.

But since the strike will not include external lecturers or junior academic staff (doctoral students and teaching assistants), some classes might be held despite the work stoppage.

It also does not include the country's colleges, which will open on Sunday as planned.

"The negotiations have failed; the strike is being launched," declared Professor Zvi Hacohen, chairman of the professors' coordinating committee, yesterday.

Over the last three days, the academics have held marathon talks with Education Minister Yuli Tamir and the head of the treasury's wages division, Eli Cohen, but neither side has budged from its initial positions. The dispute revolves around how much of a raise the professors should get and whether and how to set up a mechanism to prevent future salary erosion.

"It is inconceivable that the salaries of senior academic staff, who are Israel's strategic-economic spearhead, should be eroded so severely," said Hacohen. "The treasury's path would save pennies on wages, but we would be unable to bring back the thousands of scientists who have already left, and will yet leave, for overseas."

According to Professor Asher Cohen, who heads the lecturers' union at Hebrew University, professors' wages have eroded by 15 percent since their last strike, in 2001.

Aside from the lecturers' strike, the university presidents have also threatened not to begin the academic year as planned if the government does not increase their institutions' budgets by an additional NIS 300 million. They charge that six years of budget cuts have badly undermined research and teaching, and they are no longer capable of running their institutions under such conditions.

While some progress has been made in these talks over the last few days, the presidents were still meeting with Tamir and the head of the treasury's budget division, Kobi Haber, as of press time last night in an effort to finalize a deal.

Their threat, too, however, affects only the universities, and not the colleges.