The College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel yesterday declared itself a university, which will henceforth be called "the Ariel University Center of Samaria."
This makes Ariel the first Israeli university to be established in 34 years and the first ever founded in a settlement.
The college said that it has all the permits necessary to become a university.
But senior officials on the Council for Higher Education (CHE), which regulates and supervises the higher education system, oppose the change, as does Education Minister Yuli Tamir, and both vowed to stymie it.
Universities receive much more state funding than do colleges, and are also entitled to confer doctorates. But Professor Shlomo Grossman, chairman of the CHE's planning and budgeting committee - which is responsible for divvying up state funds among the various schools - declared that Ariel's budget "will continue to be that of a college; it will not rise or change in any way." And Tamir added that Ariel would also not be allowed to grant doctorates.
Terming the college's declaration meaningless and "misleading," Tamir said: "There are colleges and universities. There is no 'university center.'" The education minister added that the move to reclassify the college as a university is politically-motivated, and that the research at Ariel is not up to university standards.
The Planning and Budgeting Committee decided to open a legal inquiry into the ramifications of Ariel's addition of the word "university" to its name.
Ariel was able to circumvent the CHE's opposition to its new status by applying for permission instead to the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria (CHE-JS) - an independent organization that supervises higher education in the territories. This council, appointed by the army's GOC Central Command, exists because the Council for Higher Education Law, under which the regular CHE operates, does not apply to the territories.
The CHE-JS initially appointed an evaluation committee to examine Ariel's application, and this panel concluded that the college would be worthy of university status if it met certain requirements, of which the main one was opening four master's degree programs. In August 2006, the CHE-JS approved the committee's recommendation, and this past June, it allowed Ariel to open an MBA program. That was the college's fourth and final master's program, so it proceeded to declare itself a university.
Professor Dan Meyerstein, the college's president, also announced yesterday that Ariel has six research centers and that the school recently signed a $3 million agreement with an American biotechnology company to develop and market a new drug.
Among those who criticized the status change is Professor Gideon Czapski of Hebrew University, who found that the number of articles published by Ariel faculty between 1997 and 2007 was smaller than other research institutions in Israel. "The research activity in ACJS is so small that it would be absurd to turn it into a university," he said, adding: "They may be great teachers, they may do great research, but they don't have the critical mass required to make a university."
Former finance minister Yigal Cohen-Orgad, who chairs Ariel's executive committee, charged that the opposition to the school's new status does not stem from substantive considerations. "The academic establishment of the time also opposed the founding of Tel Aviv and Bar-Ilan Universities," he said. "It seems that today as well, the last one in shuts the door behind him."
Cohen-Orgad also argued that Israel needs a new university. In the United States, he said, the population grew by 30 percent from 1973 to 2000, and the number of universities grew 50 percent. In Israel, the population rose 150 percent during this time, but not a single new university was established.
Ariel officials believe that despite the CHE's opposition, increased government funding will eventually come - in part based on a letter that Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, then finance minister, sent to Grossman in 2005 that hinted at such an increase.
In contrast to Tamir and the CHE, Olmert welcomed Ariel's upgrade. In a letter to Meyerstein, Olmert wrote that the upgrade would expand Israel's higher education system and thereby "benefit Israel's economy and society."
Ariel's conversion to a university began under former education minister Limor Livnat, who pushed through a cabinet resolution in 2005 that deemed this conversion to have "national importance," as it would be a "lever for strengthening the higher education system in the region." The resolution referred in similar terms to the need for a university in the Galilee - but the CHE vetoed this idea.