Avraham (Beiga) Shochat's face was beaming when he received the first copy of the report by the committee he heads of recommendations for reforming Israel's higher education system. He gazed with gleaming eyes at the 213-page book, bound in festive blue, and said, "look how beautiful, look at the tables. There are exciting things here, so much data, I am really proud." He caresses his copy like a proud father.
The Shochat Committee was established to explore solutions to the budgetary crisis in the universities, as well as the pervasive brain drain. The report recommends dealing with these problems by increasing university budgets, transferring large sums to funding research, creating an "absorption package" to attract exceptional scientists to Israel and giving special grants to leading lecturers to prevent them from seeking greener pastures abroad.
The committee proposes adding NIS 2.5 billion to the higher education budget. Of this, NIS 1.5 billion would come from the state budget, NIS 600 million from tuition hikes, NIS 250 million from increased enrollment, and NIS 150 million from university-generated income.
But what about streamlining, I ask Shochat. After all, it is known that there are large islands of wastefulness and redundancy at universities. He answers, "that was not our mandate. We didn't deal with it." Strange. The Brodet Committee, which recommended increasing the defense budget, also recommended streamlining and economizing in the army. Why not at the universities? For example, the committee could have increased the number of teaching hours of lecturers from six weekly hours to eight. A change that is not great, but would save huge amounts of money. But, Shochat says, "this is impossible to attain. I decided that the report would not contain recommendations that could not be implemented." In other words, we gave up before we even started.
The committee decided that tuition would rise steeply, from NIS 8,600 to NIS 14,800 a year, "because under the present circumstances," Shochat explains, "the weaker population is funding the stronger population with its taxes, since studies are heavily subsidized, while only 15 percent of students per graduating class come from Dimona as opposed to 90 percent from Tel Aviv."
But how will higher tuition increase the number of students from Dimona? Shochat: "I am lowering tuition. I am creating social justice," he says, adding, "Anyone who opposes the recommendations is against social justice." By now I was confused. Was he raising tuition or lowering it? Shochat explains: "From the point of view of cash payments, students will have to pay only NIS 5,800 instead of NIS 8,600 at present. The rest they will take as subsidized loans from the bank. Students who earn less than NIS 5,300 a month will not have to repay the loan.
One thing is certain: the bureaucracy will have a field day, and so will the banks. When all is said and done, are you improving or worsening things for the students? And Shochat answers without hesitation, "I am making their situation better."
But the students think differently. They have already said that tuition must be cut, and if there is no choice, they will resume the struggle and the strike and will not begin the school year next year. To this Shochat responds: "If the students disagree, each side will return to its home port; the students to the strike and the government to govern."
Shochat wants the government to accept his recommendation to raise tuition, but is ignoring the fact that this is a cowardly government headed by a premier who thinks only about his own survival. Therefore there is no chance that he will enter a face-to-face struggle. Thus, the only recommendation to be implemented will be the addition of the NIS 1.5 billion. Is that possible, I ask? Shochat responds philosophically, "anything is possible, but without raising tuition, the necessary resources will not be there for research and to hire new staff."
But you know that transferring NIS 1.5 billion to the universities is not easy, in light of the many demands on the budget. To this Shochat says, "higher education is the most important thing. If the resources are not given to research at universities, we will deteriorate into a third world country. We already have no university ranked among the 100 best universities in the world. It must be understood that scientific research is our only asset."
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