Universities Oppose Longer Leave for Pregnant Students, New Mothers

Council of University Presidents says it wants new mothers' degrees to be 'equal in value' to other students degrees.

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The Council of University Presidents objects to a proposal that would give pregnant students and new mothers six weeks' leave from classes rather than four.

Currently, such students are allowed to miss only 30 percent of classes, which translates into four weeks. Otherwise, they have to retake the course – though they aren’t required to pay for it again.

The Israeli student union and MK Michal Rosin (Meretz) have proposed that this leave be lengthened to six weeks. Students could take it either during pregnancy or after the birth, and also while undergoing fertility treatments.

The Council for Higher Education’s subcommittee on academic policy tentatively recommended approving the change, but opened the issue up for comment before making a final recommendation to the full council. Now the Council of University Presidents has informed the CHE that it objects to the idea.

In a letter to the council, the presidents said that forcing universities to give pregnant students credit for courses, even if they missed half the classes, would undermine “both the independence of institutions of higher education and academic freedom, and, even worse, it would force academic institutions to effectively waive substantive academic requirements.”

According to the presidents, “We believe that students who give birth are entitled to have the degree they receive be equal in value to other students’ degrees, rather than a degree obtained by giving unreasonable ‘discounts.’ This approach is an extremely slippery slope; why not recognize other activities or absences for worthy purposes as well?”

In their proposal, the student union and Rosin noted that universities do just that for another group of students: army reservists. Since reservists called up during the school year can miss an unlimited number of classes without having to retake the course, the four-week limit imposed on pregnant women is discriminatory, they argued.

In their letter, the university presidents did not explain why they thought reservists should be allowed unlimited absences while pregnant women weren't.

Rosin had originally submitted legislation to lengthen students’ maternity leave, but withdrew the bill after Education Minister Shay Piron asked for time to try to persuade the Council for Higher Education to make the change voluntarily.

Student union chairman Uri Reshtik accused the university presidents “of systematically trying to torpedo any attempt to improve accessibility and provide solutions for groups who aren’t white males with money .... They’re reproducing discrimination, segregation and a male elite in academia.”

According to Reshtik, the presidents failed to explain “why reservists – who are usually men – can make up the material they missed, while women can’t. This is putting an obstacle before women returning from maternity leave. It’s the opposite of the enlightenment academia boasts of; it’s discrimination and elitism.”

The Council for Higher Education said the subcommittee would discuss the university presidents’ objections this Wednesday and then submit its final recommendation.

The presidents, for their part, said they were “well aware of the difficulties female students cope with, and this issue has been dealt with broadly and comprehensively for years by all the universities.” They cited steps such as letting pregnant students miss up to 30 percent of classes and allowing them to take an extra two semesters to graduate without paying extra.

“Nevertheless, they must complete the course material they missed during their absence,” the presidents added. “In the end, these female students are entitled to an academic degree completely equal in value to that of other students.”