The three members of the Council of Higher Education’s critical Planning and Budgeting Committee voiced harsh complaints Wednesday of political intervention by Education Minister Naftali Bennett in the panel’s work.
During a meeting of the committee, known by the Hebrew acronym Vatat, the professors read out a protest letter that focused on the expedited green light to establish a medical school at Ariel University.
“Bennett’s intervention in the committee’s professional work is being done almost publicly. As a result, it’s crucial that the professional discussions be properly conducted. The public must know that this isn’t the case,” said Prof. Yeshayahu Talmon of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology.
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Vatat is considered the Council of Higher Education’s most important committee. It has seven members, three of whom are university representatives – Talmon, Prof. Mouna Maroun of the University of Haifa and Prof. Yossi Shain of the Tel Aviv University. The committee is headed by Prof. Yaffa Zilbershats of Bar-Ilan University, who was appointed by Bennett in 2015.
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It is rare that internal criticism of the workings of either the council or Vatat is voiced publicly; such comments are generally reserved for closed meetings. The fact that the three professors decided to read out the letter – for one, so that it would be included in the meeting’s minutes and be part of the public record – demonstrates their lack of confidence in both Bennett and Zilbershats, who is meant to protect Vatat from political intervention.
According to Talmon, the managing director of the council and Vatat, Matityahu Engelman, who was appointed by Bennett a few months ago, first tried to prevent the reading of the letter on grounds that the issue was not on the meeting’s agenda, and later tried to censor parts of it. In the end, after a fierce argument, the letter was read out in full.
“Recently Vatat has made decisions in an expedited and improper fashion, and even by circumventing the committee,” Talmon said during the meeting. “These decisions were made without exhaustive academic and professional discussion and contrary to accepted procedures. The source of these decisions is motivations which, in our opinion, stem from extraneous considerations that erode the high standards that characterize the decisions of the Planning and Budgeting Committee, a situation that undermines the values and needs of higher education.”
In a conversation with Haaretz, Talmon added that the meaning of these “extraneous considerations” is “Very serious intervention by the minister in recent months.”
The letter refers mainly to the “expedited” approval that Ariel University received to establish a medical school, a move Bennett was proud of.
“In violation of accepted procedures that are in place for more than 15 years, the [medical school’s] approval was hastily inserted into the agenda of a meeting scheduled months in advance to discuss readying the budget for the next academic year, in preparation for the budget’s approval a week later,” the letter said. “It’s not proper that such an important decision be discussed in haste. We are well aware of the need to increase the number of medical students in Israel, but a hasty decision may actually do more harm than good.”
This was not just a technical issue, the professors said. “During the discussion it emerged that there were substantive answers missing” both from Ariel University and regarding the map of available places for the students to get their practical training.
According to Talmon, the approval for the medical school was only the latest instance of Bennett’s political intervention in the committee’s work; the previous one was the approval, also expedited, granted to the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya to award a doctorate in law.
The professors ended their letter with a vote of support for the professional staff, “which performs its work under almost impossible pressures,” and with a call to Zilbershats to “return the important committee she heads to a path of proper activity devoid of external pressure.”
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Vatat’s official response was that “there is no political intervention in the work of the committee,” and that “decisions are made solely in a businesslike fashion and for the benefit of the higher education system.”
With regard to approving the medical school in Ariel, the committee said, “the process was faultless,” and that “The professional committees did a comprehensive examination and submitted all the required materials to the Vatat members for discussion. The materials were sent in time, and all the time necessary was devoted to a discussion at the meeting.”
The committee added, “In democratic processes decisions are made by the majority, and the minority must respect the decisions, even if they don’t agree with them,” and “There is no place to argue that the decision to establish the medical faculty in Ariel undermined the budget work. Vatat today unanimously approved the higher education budget for the year 5779.”