The alarm sounded by the action committee of junior university academics prior to the release of the Trajtenberg Committee's report on government socioeconomic policy was justified. Years before the first protest tent was pitched in Tel Aviv, the organization had objected to employment conditions that it termed "academic slavery."
Junior academic faculty members are hired through personal employment contracts based on collective labor provisions and are limited to the semesters themselves. Excellence in performance is not grounds for a salary increase, and usually it's not even the basis for tenure. Most university departments don't hold classes during the summer and so, on an annual basis, university lecturers have to make their way to the employment office to get unemployment compensation that in actuality involves getting back taxes they paid the state the winter before.
Employment terms imposed by the Israel Council for Higher Education require junior faculty members to seek a livelihood at two or three academic institutions or to combine academic instruction and other employment. Because they are not entitled to the benefits that colleagues with tenure receive, the possibility of engaging in research is a luxury.
The kind of employment junior faculty members are engaged in may be appropriate for someone such as a student working on a master's or doctorate. Young university lecturers competing for a precious few faculty positions might also be employed on such a basis for a limited period of time. Such employment terms must not become permanent, however.
Many of their colleagues are outstanding lecturers who have been working under such conditions for a decade or more, even until they retire. A pall is cast over their careers for its entire duration. Now they see a ray of light thanks to their students, who have demanded that the country's resources be allocated more equitably to society as a whole.
The junior faculty members' protest is directed to the same individual as the tent protesters: Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, who has lent his experience to address the social protesters' demands. He normally serves as head of the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education. It could be that his normal routine, which involves dividing a small pie among a growing number of those seeking a portion of it, made him the natural candidate to rewrite the existing order.
The model is a familiar one to him. In the case of higher education, too, the state has enacted a purely capitalist system, allowing private institutions to be set up that charge double or triple the tuition that state-funded public institutions do. The problem is that by avoiding funding for every institution, the state has not improved the lot of those it does fund.
The strong institutions exist in a system in and of themselves, while those private institutions that maintain excellent standards are the only ones benefiting from increased government funding, in an effort to halt the brain drain. And the junior faculty that for years have been worn down by the system are still just being thrown crumbs.
The demand that the state be required to look after the education of its citizens from birth through a B.A. is all well and good, but it's important to add support for those who deliver that education. Halting the increase in the number of them employed as junior faculty is appropriate. In addition, most of the positions that are subcontracted out should be turned into permanent ones providing a decent living, of the kind that would enable proper academic criteria to be updated and maintained.
The demands of junior faculty should be implemented in the system as a whole. Instead of fragmenting the pie, it should be enlarged. Prof. Trajtenberg should take such a mission upon himself and inform the state that it is its obligation to preserve the higher education system. This way, the future of every young person, both well-to-do and poor, will be assured.
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