At the Expense of Everyone's Tomorrow

The politicians and businessmen realized that higher education is not only for the elite, but also a potentially huge market for wealth and influence. The growth of that market will come about at the expense of the quality of higher education

In the coming days, a bill that will affect anyone seeking higher education in Israel will be submitted for its first reading. The bill, "for lowering tuition in institutes of higher education," is sponsored by mostly leftist and "social affairs" politicians - Yossi Sarid and Avshalom Vilan from Meretz, Yair Peretz and Ofer Hugi from Shas, Zevulun Orlev from the National Religious Party, and Ayoub Kara from the Likud. Everyone wants to do good for the students, to break down the elitist barriers and make it easier to access higher education.

The bill's preface explains, among other things, that the legislation exists because of government neglect. After years of campaigning, the sponsors say, a compromise was reached between the government and the students, and a public commission, headed by retired judge Eliahu Winograd was established.

The commission, they go on to say, submitted several recommendations for lowering tuition fees at the schools of higher education. In January 2001, the government decided to adopt the Winograd recommendations. But implementation was postponed, and then reinstated - although as part of a long-term multi-year plan. In December 2001, "the government of Israel decided to ignore its own decisions and commitments to the students, and ordered cancellation of the planned reductions in tuition."

The bill, therefore, is meant to inscribe in law the Winograd commission recommendations, and meant to repair "the ongoing wrong done to the students, who are the backbone of the future of Israeli society."

But without dismissing the purity of the legislators' intentions, presumably most were well-aware of the fact that an academic degree, like housing for young couples, may be a desirable commodity but is inaccessible to many for two main reasons: high standards for admission to university and high tuition fees. Estimates are that two-thirds of the families of what is known as the middle class has at least one child who was not accepted to a university because they did not pass either the psychometric exams or the admissions tests of the department they wanted to attend.

And even when they are accepted to the university, life is not so simple: tuition weighs heavily on their pockets as wage-earners, Israeli students (still mostly army veterans) are generally older than their overseas contemporaries and have a difficult time finding appropriate part-time work, and the lack of dormitories forces the students and their parents to finance housing in the large cities.

All this, in addition to other difficulties put in the way of the students (emergency reserve call-up orders, for example), turn university studies into a painful process for a large segment of the student body, which every political party would like to ease. The concern for students is legitimate, of course, and the MKs can be praised for their displays of responsibility.

Nonetheless, their energetic involvement in the matter of tuition is both self-righteous and deliberately naive, if it ignores the broader picture. To see it, they should take into account two small facts - one, that the political involvement in higher education is not only about tuition but mostly about damaging intervention in the supervision of the institutes of higher education.

The second fact is that the fifth article in the bill also includes state participation in the institutes that the state does not subsidize. This will give the private, semi-private and possibly the branch extensions of foreign colleges, indirect subsidies from the state, even though they do not meet the criteria for state financing through the Higher Education Council.

Both facts are enormously important. In recent years, and particularly since the energetic Limor Livnat was made education minister, politicians and businessmen have aggressively and rudely intruded into the supervision of the institutes. The climax of this process, which took place at the same time as the massive development of private and semi-private collages, was over the change in the make-up of the Higher Education Council, which ended, more or less, in a compromise, and in the campaign that has only just begun about the HEC's Committee for Planning and Budgeting.

The politicians and businessmen realized that higher education is not only for the elite, but also a potentially huge market for wealth and influence. The growth of that market will come about at the expense of the quality of higher education, the quality of research and academic freedom, all of which have already been eroded.

It's impossible, of course, to deter the well-meaning MKs from doing what they believe to be the right thing. But it may be possible to assume that even if the law does pass its second and third readings, the money won't be found to implement it. The bill intends for tuition to be reduced over five years to half its current levels. But they can be asked to reconsider: Maybe it would be preferable to give up the pretensions of lowering tuition, and instead, establish with less money, funds that could be used to enable more poor students to get higher education. If not, they should at least erase Article 5 from the bill, to avoid a situation in which more students are in school, but at the expense of everyone's tomorrow.