The university student who met me in the supermarket was very practical: "Do you have any good advice as to how to win the struggle to reduce tuition fees?"
"I think you won't want to hear my opinion," I answered.
"What? Don't you support the strike?" he asked in astonishment.
"Right. I don't support it. I think that it's unnecessary, it's unjustified and your leadership is leading you astray."
The student gave me a dirty look and went on his way, but it is hard to argue with the facts. And the facts are that university students receive a very heavily subsidized product. Their tuition fees fund only 16 percent of the universities' budget, whereas the evil and miserly state funds 70 percent of it. The remainder (14 percent) is raised by the universities through donations.
And another fact: The general trend in Western countries is to raise tuition fees. British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a social democrat, has raised university tuition fees, and this has also happened in Holland, in certain areas of Germany, in New Zealand and even in communist China. In the rest of the world, the conclusion has been reached that when tuition fees are too low, or even zero, academic standards tumble to a dangerous level.
There is also a moral issue here. Is it fair that those who acquire a profession for life - for example economists, accountants, engineers, computer scientists or biologists - should not pay a reasonable sum of about NIS 30,000 in return? Why should the taxpayer fund it all for them? After all, in a few months of decent earnings, they will be able to recoup all the tuition fees they paid.
And what about those who studied history, theater or social work, whose earnings are not high? It turns out that even these graduates earn more than people without an academic education. All research studies show that there is a high return to an academic education, in any department or field. And in any case, are students the segment of society that is most oppressed? Perhaps before helping the students, we should be helping the truly weak segments of society: the elderly, the disabled and the unemployed.
But all of these logical arguments make no impression on the student leaders. Itay Sonschein, chairman of the National Students Union and the leader of the strike, has disproportionate revolutionary zeal. He sees the Shochat Committee (which is comprised of the top experts in the field) as a destructive capitalist plot. As far as he is concerned, everything is justified for the sake of dismantling the committee, chalking up a victory and proceeding up the trajectory of party politics - and to hell with what is good for academia and the economy.
But if the students achieve their aim, the universities will be badly hurt. They will not get the additional budgets that the Shochat Committee is planning. Committee chair Avraham Shochat and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert have already agreed that when tuition fees go up, the state will also contribute its part. Therefore, the death of the Shochat Committee would also be a deathblow to academia, which is suffering from budget cuts.
In order to get the students' support, the leaders of the strike are not telling them that alongside the increase in tuition fees, there will also be a comprehensive program of scholarships and loans. The students will in fact pay less (!) in cash than what they are paying today; they will receive the remainder of the money as a subsidized loan. They will have to repay this loan only when they have completed their studies, and repayment will be spread over a period of seven years, with payments of NIS 300 a month. That's all.
The students will also be entitled to many grants and scholarships on a need basis, and the Perah program, which entitles students to reduced fees in return for tutoring disadvantaged children, will be expanded greatly. So where is the oppression? After all, the rich will pay more (they will not need the loan), while students from low-income families will take the loan and begin studying immediately. And indeed, this is the main goal: full and fast access to higher education, for everyone.
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