Outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert held a meeting with representatives of the Finance Ministry and the universities on Thursday afternoon. The topic: the future of higher education.
Olmert summarized the issue: "Up to now you have had a chance to solve the matter in negotiations between yourselves. Since you have not succeeded, I will decide," said the prime minister.
He then started to read off a list of numbers from piece of paper, all of which added up to NIS 515 million. Education Minister Yuli Tamir and the university representatives were quite satisfied; but Ram Belinkov, the treasury's budgets director, was furious. "Where will we get the money from?" said the treasury officials, and Finance Minister Roni Bar-On turned to Olmert: "But you gave them more than they asked for!" "That is my decision," responded Olmert.
Olmert's decision was met with shock and disappointment in the treasury. "The decision was made over our heads and against our policy. It will require cutbacks elsewhere in the budget," said one treasury official. "We are not denying the prime minister's right to make the decision, but we feel that it is incorrect, unilateral and ignores the treasury's serious considerations," he added.
The treasury had offered NIS 370 million, NIS 145 million less than Olmert granted in the end. "The prime minister granted a bonus for waste," said a treasury official.
The figure is even NIS 35 million more than the sum demanded by the representatives of the universities. Olmert's decision guarantees the academic year will begin on time and as planned on Sunday. In addition, tuition fees will not be raised and lecturers will get a raise.
The major disagreement remaining in the negotiations was the question of where the money would go. The treasury demanded that most of it go to specific purposes and proposed that only NIS 100 million could be used as the universities saw fit.
Olmert decided that NIS 250 million would be available for the universities according to their priorities, and not the treasury's.
The treasury claims the universities' problem, and the reason they need the funds at their disposal, is their inability to keep to the wage agreement they signed this year. The cost of the agreement is estimated at NIS 500 million over the next year. The Council for Higher Education says the treasury's claims are baseless, and the additional funds will go to rehabilitate the higher education system after years of cutbacks demanded by the Finance Ministry.
Tamir praised the decision, calling it excellent and said it included funds for new immigrant scientists, research, infrastructure and colleges. She said she did not view the need for Olmert to decide as a failure, but a natural decision for the prime minister to make considering the large sums involved and their importance.
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