Political Animal / Lessons of Winograd Committee I

There is no special reason to remember, and so I will recall a sin: I am the minister who appointed the Winograd Committee that examined tuition in the institutions of higher learning.

There is no special reason to remember, and so I will recall a sin: I am the minister who appointed the Winograd Committee that examined tuition in the institutions of higher learning. I did not appoint it under pressure or under the threat of a strike; the representatives of the students didn't even demand a committee. I myself thought at the time that young people in Israel pay too high a tuition, and that the time had come to rectify the situation.

I searched for a chair for the committee, and who could be more suitable than a retired judge, who would examine the issue objectively and without prejudice? Aharon Barak, then the president of the Supreme Court, suggested I appoint Judge Eliyahu Winograd. Winograd wanted to be certain that his committee would not end up like so many public committees, whose recommendations end up collecting dust on shelves of lost reports. I gave him my word, although I knew in advance that in the future I would be dealing with problematic clients. As a matter of course, I added two authorized representatives of the student community to the committee.

The Winograd Committee sat and deliberated for months on end, and there is no group in the country with any connection to tuition that did not testify before it. A few days before it gathered its recommendations, the newspapers reported that the Finance Ministry would not be bound by them. Winograd was furious, and informed me that he would disband the committee before it drew up its conclusions. I had to go to his home and beg him to complete the work. Winograd agreed.

Not only did the treasury have reservations, the Committee of University Heads also signaled its displeasure. I will never forget the nocturnal meeting in the bureau of prime minister Ehud Barak, during which the presidents and deans of the universities presented a united front against any reduction in tuition. It was quite depressing to witness a group of the most senior of academics all making prophecies in the same vein. They were afraid that if there really was a decision to lower tuition, the reduced revenues would accordingly be subtracted from higher education budgets, and the students' gain would be the institutions' loss. I then forced the hand of finance minister Avraham Shochat, and with the help of the prime minister, extracted a letter of commitment from him: Whatever was subtracted from student payments would not come at the expense of the universities and the colleges.

The Winograd Committee decided on a 50-percent reduction over five years. Ehud Barak and I appeared together at a press conference and announced the revolution. Nothing like this had ever happened: For the first time in history, costs were being reduced rather than increased. The recommendations were brought to the government and unanimously adopted. Ministers shook my hand enthusiastically and chief among the well-wishers was the present Education Minister, Yuli Tamir.

The reasons for the reduction that were valid seven years ago are still valid today, and even more so. Although in several countries, there has been a trend toward raising tuitions, the Israeli student still pays more than most of his European counterparts. And the situation should be the opposite. After all, young people in Israel are the only ones required by law and by circumstance to serve in the army for several years. According to an investigation conducted during the days of the Winograd Committee, 78 percent of students serve in the reserves; and if the burden of reserve duty was reduced somewhat in recent years, from now on it will be increased, as a lesson from the Second Lebanon War.

From Ethics of the Fathers, we learned that "lefum tza'ara agra" - the reward is commensurate with the pain involved. On the basis of that principle, we can say that tuition should be commensurate with the contribution to the state. But here things are upside down: You contribute more, and you also pay more.

Education is not only economics. It is first and foremost society, and all the studies indicate that higher education is the key to social mobility. But dysfunctional Israel likes to keep its weaker elements in their place: Tell me where you come from, and I'll tell you how far you'll go.

Tuition is not the only hurdle on the path to higher education, but it is a high one. And don't let them tell you stories about the large number of scholarships and loans available. In a country one third of whose children are poor, there will never be enough money and willingness to pay compensation for the injustice that has already been caused them, the shortchanged, and it is a continuing and intensifying injustice. Not only were they shortchanged while they were growing up, they will also be shortchanged in the future, when they are obliged to document the wretchedness of their situation as a precondition to receiving a discount in tuition - as a precondition for acceptance to university, in fact.

And here is something of which we should be aware: Even today there are many loans available, but longstanding experience indicates that they are hardly ever used. Young people in Israel refrain from taking on the burden of loans, which will only be added on to other commitments for housing and livelihood. Moreover, when one government commits itself to convenient repayment conditions, another government, sometimes even the same one, is liable to change the conditions for the worse from one day to the next. The bastards up there change the rules without batting an eyelash, and it's a fact that they offhandedly erased the recommendations of the Winograd Committee, while totally ignoring the rules of governmental continuity. And who will promise the students that what is now being done to the Winograd Committee will not be done in future to the Shochat Committee?

The students are justified in their struggle, although it is highly doubtful whether they will succeed in keeping it up. If they want to discuss tuition once again that is legitimate; it is not legitimate to stop the implementation of the previous recommendations midway; and it is not legitimate to limit students' involvement in the tuition decision to a late and insubstantial improvisation; and it is not legitimate to appoint to new committees chairpersons whose opinion is known in advance and is uncompromising; and it is not legitimate to promise the students to restore to higher education the one and a half billion shekels stolen from it - and then not to make good on that promise.