The High Court of Justice on Tuesday rejected a petition by seven universities against the decision to upgrade Ariel University Center into a full-fledged university. The ruling removes the last barrier to the upgrade of the institution, located in the West Bank settlement of Ariel.
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The court said it saw no grounds for intervening in the decision made by the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria (CHE-JS ), as it found no flaws in the approval process.
The CHE-JS made the decision to upgrade Ariel more than a year ago, in July 2012. In December 2012, the decision was approved by the Israel Defense Forces’ GOC Central Command on orders from then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, based on a legal opinion by the attorney general that also found no problems with the change. The IDF’s approval was needed because Ariel is located in the West Bank, which is under military administration, being legally outside the State of Israel.
A petition against the decision was then filed in the High Court by all eight existing Israeli universities – the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, the Weizmann Institute of Science, the University of Haifa, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, the Open University and Bar-Ilan University. The latter asked that its name be withdrawn from the petition shortly afterward.
The universities objected to Ariel’s upgrade for two main reasons. First, the status change would result in the fixed amount of government funding being divided among more players, since universities receive significantly more funding than do colleges. Second, they feared that Ariel’s location in the West Bank would fuel academic boycotts of Israel overseas.
But the official reason for opposing the upgrade cited in the petition was that the decision by the CHE-JS contradicted the professional opinion of the regular Council for Higher Education’s Planning and Budgeting Committee, known by its Hebrew acronym Vatat. The committee concluded that Israel had no need for another university, and that the addition of another university would do grave damage to Israel’s higher education system.
The regular Council of Higher Education (CHE) has no authority in the West Bank, and the CHE-JS rejected Vatat’s opinion. But the petitioners argued that since the CHE-JS has jurisdiction only within the West Bank, it lacked the tools to properly assess the upgrade’s impact on Israel’s higher education system as a whole.
Supreme Court President Asher Grunis, with Justices Miriam Naor and Edna Arbel concurring, opened his ruling by reviewing the more than seven-year process leading to Ariel’s upgrade. He then rejected the petitioners’ claims that the CHE-JS had acted improperly, or that it had a conflict of interests, saying he found “no fault with its conduct.”
Regarding the question of whether the CHE-JS had an obligation to consult Vatat, Grunis wrote, “It hasn’t been proved that it didn’t do what was required of it in the context of its agreed-on obligation to consult. During the seven years in which this process took place, the CHE-JS acted with complete transparency toward the CHE and the Vatat. Periodic recommendations were passed on to these bodies all the time, and in accordance with the comments received from them, changes were made.”
Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar, who was education minister when Ariel’s upgrade was approved, welcomed the court’s decision.
“From the start, this was a superfluous petition,” he said. “Ariel University was approved via an appropriate process, based on criteria and benchmarks that weren’t met by its predecessors. It’s a pity the universities didn’t honor the decisions by the government, the CHE-JS and the CHE on this matter, and were compelled to accept the decision of the Supreme Court, sitting as the High Court of Justice, regarding the establishment of an eighth university in Israel.”