Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz's pledge to the Ariel University Center to add more than NIS 100 million to its budget next year, bypassing the bodies authorized to deal with funding academic institutions, is a tangible example of political involvement in the higher education system.
As reported by Talila Nesher in Friday's Haaretz, the budgeting committee of the Council for Higher Education is attempting to justify the move. It is putting together general criteria that will, of course, conform to the academic situation of the institution in Ariel.
In fact, senior members of the committee concede that since the money is going to be given in any case, all they have left to do is to try to build a new model for higher education that justifies the existence of university centers as an interim phase between a college and a university.
The higher education system has largely managed to maintain its independence for more than 50 years. The law establishing the Council for Higher Education, passed in 1958, and that body's budgeting committee, established in 1977, were intended to create a barrier between the government and academic institutions. Indeed, the decision to establish the budgeting committee stated: "The government and the national institutions will avoid accepting requests or recommendations from the institutions of higher education themselves or from any other source."
Just a few weeks ago, in an attempt to counter the state comptroller's report that criticized the finance minister for his part in the Carmel fire disaster, Steinitz's spokesmen said: "The finance minister is in charge of managing economic policy and it is not his job to examine or deal with specific financial allocations in the budgets of the various government ministries." But it turns out that when it comes to issues closer to his heart, Steinitz does know how to intervene to transfer specific financial allocations.
The pledge to directly fund the Ariel University Center, even at the cost of a clash with experts, undermines the independence of the higher education system. The finance minister, as well as Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar - who has already declared that "in the end Ariel will be a university" - must respect this independence.
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