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University students were intensifying their campaign against the Shochat Committee on Reform in Higher Education by shutting down ten institutions of higher learning on Wednesday.

Some 150 students surrounded the Tel Aviv University campus Wednesday morning and prevented entry into the university.

According to the National Students Union, they are protesting of the formation of the Shochat Committee, which is likely to recommend a significant hike in tuition fees.

Strikes were to be held at Tel Aviv University, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Haifa University, Ben Gurion University in Be'er Sheva, Wingate College, the College of Management, Kay college, Bezalel Academy of Art and Design, Western Galilee college and the College of Judea and Samaria.

The Shochat Committee was appointed on November 8 by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Education Minister Yuli Tamir and Finance Minister Abraham Hirchson.

The committee, which is to submit its initial recommendations by late April 2007, is comprised of Tamir, Finance Ministry officials, representatives of the Council for Higher Education and senior professors, but it does not include student representation.

National Student Union Chairman Itay Sonschein said that students at all academic institutions will strike for an extended period, should the government fail to deliver on the pledge to lower tuition fees by 50 percent made by government of former prime minister Ehud Barak in 2001.

The student associations are seeking to replace the Shochat committee by a committee headed by a retired justice in order to increase its impartiality.

According to chairman of the Tel Aviv University Student's Union, Boaz Toporovsky, the strike is being held to protest "the finance and education ministries' policy of privatizing higher education."

"If there is something that the government does consistently, it is failing to live up to its promises," Toporovsky said.

Shochat: Tuition may be determined by student's socio-economic status

Former finance minister Abraham Shochat, who has rejected the students' demands, said in an interview to Haaretz on Tuesday that "all the options are still open, nothing has been predetermined."

He added that the Shochat Committee, that will determine the amount of the recommended tuition, will also offer a financial aid program. The committee will consider, among other things, to base the amount of tuition a student is required to pay on their socio-economic status, thus instituting differing tuitions in universities and colleges.

Dr. Liora Meridor, formerly a senior official at the Bank of Israel, will head the tuition committee. Representing the university heads on the committee will be Professor Itamar Rabinovitch.Shochat refused to divulge his stance on the wages of university staff, but he indicated that he supports "differential compensation, which will translate excellence into monetary compensation and encourage better teachers and researchers, and attract investors and leading researchers."

In an attempt to calm university staff unions, Shochat said "the committee does not plan to obliterate the tenure process." However, he did not reject the option of drawing up personal contracts for university staff members.

"The state of universities in Israel is deteriorating," Shochat explained the urgency of the committee's existence. "There is a severe shortage of funding sources, fewer laboratories, libraries, teacher's assistants and lecturers per student."

In the last five years, some NIS 1.2 billion have been cut from the budget for higher learning. According to data presented by Shochat on Tuesday, the number of students has risen by 52 percent between 2003 and 2005, while the state's investment in institutions of higher learning has declined by 14 percent during the same time frame.