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The administrators of Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, are threatening to petition the High Court of Justice against the faculties of medicine here over an international study program for medical students. Sheba is slated to participate in the study program along with St. George's University of London and the University of Nicosia, Cyprus.

The Sheba versus the universities crisis was first exposed by Haaretz in March, when the four medical faculty chiefs in the country mounted an unprecedented assault on the medical center for its plan to take part in the program. The universities' protests were supported by the Council for Higher Education, which demanded that Sheba, as a branch of a foreign university in the framework of the program, submit the program for the council's approval, in keeping with the law. In December 2003, the council had ruled that there would be no medical studies in Israel in the framework of branches of foreign universities.

Sheba, however, has so far refrained from submitting the study program for approval, arguing that the provisions of the law pertaining to branches of foreign universities cannot be applied to hospitals, and that the program involves an agreement allowing students who studied abroad to receive practical medical training in Israel.

The matter has been under discussion at the Justice Ministry, which is reviewing the legality of the study program. During the course of the talks, Justice Ministry officials have declared that they are considering ordering Sheba either to submit the program for approval to the Council for Higher Education, or to run the program in conjunction with one of Israel's universities as a prerequisite for its approval.

No final decision has been taken: Neither option is realistic for Sheba, as both the Council for Higher Education and the universities are opposed to the program and will refuse to approve it or cooperate with it in any way.

Sheba's director-general, Prof. Zeev Rothstein, says: "As an Israeli, I am bothered by the fact that the Council for Higher Education is attacking us for opening an international program in which Israelis, too, will be able to study on an equal footing, while the same council has authorized Israeli medical faculties to open programs that are not accessible to holders of an Israeli passport."

Rothstein is referring to study programs that have been in place for more than a decade at the medical faculties of Tel Aviv and Ben-Gurion universities and the Haifa Technion and that are not open to Israelis. Sheba is now demanding that these programs be closed, and has threatened to petition the High Court on the matter.

"We are talking about discriminatory programs that are not based on the principle of equality, particularly in light of the shortage of doctors in Israel and the increased need to fill new medical positions in the country," Rothstein said.

The international program at Sheba, which will cost some 25,000 euros per year, is designed for 50-80 students, and is open for registration to holders of a bachelor's degree with an average of at least 75 percent. Candidates will also have to pass Britain's Medical College Admissions Test science exam to be accepted to the program.

Meanwhile, in an unprecedented move, the Israeli Medical Students Union sent a letter to Council for Higher Education chairman Gideon Sa'ar in which it joins the criticism against the program and calls for its cancelation.

"We expect hospitals to operate in a value-oriented manner and not as commercial enterprises," the Medical Students Union wrote, arguing that due to its cost, the program will only be available to wealthy Israeli students. "There is a need to stop the hospitals' expensive public infrastructures, which belong to all citizens of the state, from being used to train foreign medical students who will not contribute to the Israeli public health system in the future."