University Heads Call for Reform

The Committee of University Heads seeks to limit the education minister's influence on higher-education council appointments.

The Committee of University Heads called for reforms in Israel's higher education in a missive to a new cabinet committee on higher education last week.

A document obtained by Haaretz reveals the education body is seeking academic freedom to be enshrined in law, and Council on Higher Education in Judea and Samaria to be disbanded. The document also recommends the education minister renounce the chairmanship of the Council on Higher Education.

The new committee, which is chaired by the deputy head of the Committee of University Heads, Prof. Hagit Messer-Yaron, met for the first time six weeks ago. Its goals are to “maintain the autonomy of the higher education system…and strike a balance between the needs of the system of higher education on the one hand, and expression of government policies and national needs and goals on the other.”

The university heads said the Council on Higher Education in Judea and Samaria should be disbanded because the latter "is authorized to make decisions that have a direct impact on the higher education system in Israel in general, without it having the authority or the tools to weigh considerations involving the entire system.”

The Judea and Samaria education panel was responsible for the controversial upgrading to university status of Ariel College in the West Bank settlement of Ariel.

It was established in 1997 after Israel's Council on Higher Education refused to deal with higher education in the beyond the Green Line. Israel Defense Force’s Central Command, which is in charge of the West Bank, established Council on Higher Education in Judea and Samaria by military order.

The demands by university heads have to do with their history with the previous education minister, Gideon Sa’ar. During Sa’ar’s term, senior academics criticized Sa’ar’s appointees to the council and the fact that he had reduced the number of representatives of the universities on the council. Many believe the council was deliberately politicized during Sa’ar’s term to enable the upgrading the official status of Ariel College to make a university over the protestation of other universities.

The university head are also demanding the financial subcommittee of the Council on Higher Education be required by law to consult the Committee of University Heads before “making rules that constitute intervention in the running of the institutions.”

Their document also calls for the status of the financial subcommittee of the Council on Higher Education to be enshrined in law. It recommends that the financial subcommittee also be authorized by law to deal with wage agreements of the academic and administrative staffs of the various institutions, rather than, as at present, the supervisor of wages in the Finance Ministry.

This change was essential to preserve academic freedom, the university heads wrote, to prevent a situation by which the supervisor of wages “summons university presidents to him, and conducts dialogue that should not take place between the heads of the institutions and a supervisory body.”

The financial subcommittee of the Council on Higher Education should serve as a “barrier between the Finance Ministry and the institutions,” the university heads wrote.

The Council on Higher Education responded that in the framework of the new committee’s work, 22 requests and proposals were received from various bodies and that representatives of some of these bodies would be invited to testify before the committee.

Instead of the education minister chairing the council, the university heads proposed that it be chaired by a former president of one of the universities after a cooling-off period of at least three years, or by some other senior figure with an academic and administrative reputation. They also noted that “lively involvement by ministers in the matters of the Council on Higher Education could result in political considerations and even place the minister in a conflict of interests.”

The university heads would like to see an end to the practice of appointing members to the Council on Higher Education on the recommendation of the education minister. Endorsement should come from independent bodies.

A figure familiar with the issues said: “The term of the previous minister taught us a lesson and now we want things done differently.” Another figure said: “The Committee of University Heads expects good achievements with the new minister, with whom we have excellent dialogue.”

Michal Fattal