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On Wednesday, the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education (CHE) convened for a special meeting. At the session, the committee members demanded that the head of the council provide them with an answer to the question of why each year, hundreds of millions of shekels are transferred to the universities (with Hebrew University, Jerusalem, heading the list) in the form of a special budget, without the committee approving the manner in which the funds are distributed.

If the CHE were a government ministry, it would rank fourth from the point of view of the budget it allocates. Responsibility for distributing the council's funds rests with a seven-member panel, which exclusively oversees the planning and budgeting for Israel's 51 institutions of higher learning and the distribution of an annual budget of some NIS 6 billion.

For the past five years, the Planning and Budgeting Committee has been chaired by Prof. Nehemia Levtzion; and if the council were indeed a government ministry, Levtzion would be the minister for higher education. In practice, however, he has far more powers than any member of cabinet.

The issue of the independence of Israel's higher education system came up on the Knesset's agenda already in 1958 - the same year that saw the enactment of the Higher Education Law, which transfered responsibility for the field of higher education to the CHE, with the objective of preserving academic freedom.

The 25 members of the CHE - the education minister (as chair), representatives of the academic institutions and public representatives - are responsible for determining academic and research policy, approving new curricula and supervising the academic institutions and their faculties. In 1977, the government decided the council's Planning and Budgeting Committee would enjoy a free rein and that the treasury, the Knesset and the government would not intervene in its decisions. According to the law, the CHE is supposed to oversee the decisions of the budgeting committee.

However, a review conducted by Ha'aretz reveals that under cover of the autonomy enjoyed by the CHE, disputed decisions on financial and academic issues are being made, without the approval of the council's assembly.

Furthermore, each year, the members of the Planning and Budgeting Com mittee approve the overall budgets that the state transfers to the universities.

It has emerged now that these budgets include special clauses to the tune of hundreds of millions of shekels that have not been specially approved and about which the members of the committee receive no particulars. In addition, in the framework of the approval of the state budget, the committee does not inform the CHE or the Knesset of the manner in which the budgets are distributed.

In 1999, the state comptroller determined that the CHE could be expected to oversee the activities of the Planning and Budgeting Committee and that such supervision was required in light of the fact that the government restricted itself when it came to its involvement in the field of higher education.

The public is not kept fully abreast of the decisions of the CHE. The meetings of the council and its committees are held behind closed doors and a significant portion of the CHE's documents are classified as "confidential." These documents include the protocols of the council's and committee's discussions, as well as review reports on academic institutions. Levtzion and Naftali Weitman, the secretary of the CHE, refused to furnish Ha'aretz with such protocols for the purpose of preparing this report.

The harshest criticism against the council and its chairman comes from the members of the Planning and Budgeting Committee themselves. Thus far, the CHE has managed to conceal this flak from the public eye, relying on the "confidentiality" of the protocols.

Levtzion confirms that up until this year, the Planning and Budgeting Committee has not specifically approved the special allocations to the universities, but only the overall budget.

On Wednesday, he says, the committee members were presented with details of the special allocations and they were approved. He says, however, that they were approved without a vote, adding that the CHE's ultimate goal is to put an end to the special allocations altogether.

Nissan Limor, the director-general of the CHE, also confirms that in the past, the Planning and Budgeting Committee "did not go into detailed discussions in advance and relied on the considerations of the system - the councils budgetary division and the director-general." Limor says that no information has ever been withheld from the members of the Planning and Budgeting Committee and that they have always been presented with all the data they have requested.