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The Financial Times publishes an annual rating of 100 universities in Britain. Derby University is ranked in 96th place. In the ranking by another paper, The Times, the university is in 98th place. The level of the university's branch in Israel is even lower. It has no admission requirements, does no research, and is scattered among six different locations, attesting to a lack of interest in crystallizing an academic center. However, none of these facts prevented the Israeli branch of the university from producing 3,200 graduates in 2001 - about the same number of graduates that the Hebrew University of Jerusalem produced. Because Derby is a powerhouse. A powerhouse of money.

Since the mid-1990s, branches of many foreign universities have been established in Israel and have operated without academic supervision by the Council for Higher Education. They granted first and second degrees with remarkable ease, making it possible for employees in the public sector to up their salaries considerably. Individuals in the career army, the Prisons Service, the Israel Police, as well as teachers and nurses enrolled in these institutions, received degrees and were granted an "education increment" in their wages - and everyone was happy, except the state.

The ease with which the degrees were granted in the branches made academic degrees a joke. There are no examinations, only "papers." In a few cases, such as the branches of Burlington and Latvia Universities, it turned out that there was no need to even attend classes; all you had to do was pay and the diploma was on its way to the printer. There were also some supernatural events; for example, even though the Latvia institution's license was revoked in November 1999, it continued to churn out graduates even in 2001.

The state has no small part in this farce. Every year, the Finance Ministry allocates millions of shekels to the "Knowledge Fund" to improve the level of the country's teachers. The Organization of Secondary School Teachers distributed this money in the form of scholarships to its members who enrolled for second-degree studies at Derby University. The result was that the treasury subsidized the teachers twice: once by underwriting part of their tuition fees and a second time by having to pay extra wages based on the degrees the teachers acquired.

The subject of these university branches is now coming under public scrutiny since the budget is in such bad shape, and the treasury is trying to save NIS 200 million by canceling the wage increases for the academic degrees. The 2003 Economic Arrangements Bill stipulates that the academic degrees granted by the branches of foreign universities will not be recognized for the purpose of approving a wage increment in the public service sector unless the branch has been recognized by the Council for Higher Education. This is a logical amendment, which will restore the lost honor of academic degrees. However, the bill has to be passed Wednesday by a joint committee in the Knesset, which is headed by Zevulun Orlev (National Religious Party), who is not enthusiastic about it.

The local Derby branch succeeded in enlisting Orlev's support; he was also the guest of honor at the degree awarding ceremony in November 2001. Orlev rolls his eyes and proposes "academic supervision" of the Derby branch in Israel. But "academic supervision" is a vague concept, which cannot be enforced. Why doesn't he demand that the branches of these universities get academic recognition by the Council for Higher Education - as the branch of Manchester University did? And if Derby has the high level its directors claim, why don't they seek such recognition?

At any rate, since the mid-1990s, the foreign university industry has become the most successful in Israel. In 1997 branches produced 1,500 graduates of the public service, in 1999 this rose to 5,000, then 8,500 in 2000, and this year there are 12,400 graduates. And there's a long way to go - there are 600,000 employees in the country's public sector.