Israel's Education Minister Backs Upgrade of West Bank College to University Status

Ariel college may become a university after all despite opposition.

Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar yesterday declared his support for upgrading the Ariel University Center of Samaria to a full-fledged university, marking the first time he has openly challenged the Council for Higher Education’s professional recommendation on the matter.

Sa’ar’s announcement, as well as a pledge by Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz to earmark special funds for Ariel on top of the existing university funding, could mean the institution will be upgraded, despite the opposition against such a move.

Sa’ar announced that he wrote to the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria to express support for the upgrade. That council, which already concluded that Ariel meets all the academic requirements for becoming a university, technically has final say over the matter since the institution is in the West Bank. It is set to announce its final decision tomorrow.

Until yesterday, it was expected to accept the recommendation of the regular Council for Higher Education’s planning and budget committee since it would be virtually impossible for a university to survive without the committee’s financial support. That committee had advised against the upgrade.

Sa’ar had previously said he supported the upgrade in principle, but on condition that Israel’s existing universities not be harmed by it. The existing universities had argued that funding a new university out of the same government pie would reduce their own state funding.

But he issued his stronger statement of support yesterday, a few hours after Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz announced that his ministry would earmark special additional funds for Ariel.

When Haaretz first reported earlier this month that Steinitz planned to allocate special funds for Ariel, his office denied it. But in yesterday’s press statement, Steinitz said he will ask the cabinet to approve an allocation to Ariel of “about NIS 20 million and NIS 30 million for the 2013 and 2014 fiscal years, respectively, which will then increase gradually over the course of several years.”

“I believe that to the degree that this letter makes it easier for the authorized bodies to decide to establish Israel’s eighth university in Ariel, this will be a historic move that will contribute greatly to academia in this country and make an important contribution to our culture, economy and society, and to strengthening the city of Ariel,” the statement added.

Sa’ar, in his letter to the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria, wrote that Steinitz’s promise to earmark special funds for Ariel on top of the funding for existing universities “relieves the fear ‏(which some parties sought to inflame‏) that establishing an eighth university would harm the existing research universities’ budgets.”

Sa’ar also quoted a cabinet resolution saying that the government attaches “national importance” to the planned upgrade, and stressed that this decision has never been canceled.

But he did not quote the second half of that resolution, which called for the upgrade in coordination with the CHE, its planning and budget committee, and the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria, and in consideration of “national, academic, planning, budgetary and other aspects of the matter.”