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Some 1,300 workers have been striking for the past two weeks over foot-dragging in collective bargaining negotiations. Had they been employed in chicken slaughtering, shipping or garbage collection, it's likely many people would have stood by their side screaming bloody murder at the injustice of failing to reach an agreement. In their case, however, no one is crying out - educated white-collar workers are seen as powerful enough to fend for themselves.

The continuing strike of Open University lecturers exposes a disease afflicting the higher education system - that of adjunct lecturers. Like all contracted workers, they are an effective yet cheap source of labor. In a society that views education as a means of personal advancement, and in a state that has long valued excellence, more people hold advanced degrees than there are available positions. The opening of Israel's colleges has eased the situation somewhat, but today even those institutions are full, with limited tenured faculty and a wide array of adjunct lecturers.

The current strike was born as an "almost strike" of the university's junior faculty, which was met with an agreement by the heads of the universities (with the exception of the Technion) for six-month contracts instead of semester-long deals, as well as academic and social benefits. But at the one institution where the majority of the faculty are adjunct lecturers, negotiations have lagged.

Sixty-one full-time academics at the Open University are assisted by 1,300 adjunct lecturers at 50 instruction centers, who teach more than 50,000 students. The university with the largest student body in Israel (although some of those students pursue their education at a decidedly slow pace) also has the country's strangest faculty structure.

The labor court handling the strike ruled again and again that the adjunct lecturers' relationship with the university were those of employee-employer - decisions that hardly improved the position of those lecturers. Their contracts must be renewed every semester, an inherently problematic arrangement.

The institutional advantage of employing contracted lecturers is clear - their salaries are paid for eight months at the most (the situation nationwide except at five universities) and the cost of their benefits and budgeting for their research is low. In addition, the college or university retains management flexibility allowing it to test young academic candidates while benefiting from the talents of veteran researchers on a temporary basis. But that same flexibility is liable to slide into arbitrariness that has no relation to academic quality or educational programs.

Academic institutions also have the option of closing courses in which the number of students registered is lower than the threshold set. But the financial savings present an opening for academic cheapening. Adjunct lecturers' constant concern over their livelihood is likely to lead them to make the level of instruction easier, and to take a more lenient approach to grading. At times the educational relationship can become personal - lecturers may advance students themselves, producing a qualified graduate who, in turn, returns the favor by recommending that others take the lecturer's courses. It is well known that sky-high grades are a guarantee for high registration in the future.

In the meantime, there is not a single head of a higher-education institution expressing concern about the situation or encouraging the striking lecturers, and not because the latter are wrong. The prevailing quiet is testament to the crooked relations between the government, college and university heads, and faculty.

As budgeted bodies, higher-education leaders are loath to press the Finance Ministry or Knesset Finance Committee too hard - one outcry too many could leave the fountain for research funding dry. Instead, they allow the current disease to persist, provided that no more serious malady inflicts their own institutions. The state, for its part, is liable to let them collapse, as it has the elementary and high-school education systems.