The Bottom Line / The Students Must Pay Their Fair Share, Too

If there is something that can stir Israeli college students from their stoic tranquility, it is messing with their tuition. Itty Sonschein, chairman of the National Student Union, has suggested very strongly that there will be a student strike should the Finance Ministry attempt to raise tuition rates. Remarking on a nation whose only natural resource is human, he notes that access to a higher education must not be impeded.

Sonschein mentions that the students will be willing to protest. It is interesting to note that they will take to the streets in order to prevent any increase to their tuition, but do not even give a second thought to the idea of fighting for an improvement in scholarship conditions for weaker students. Nor do they consider fighting for improved access to student loans.

There is a reason for all this. Very few students take scholarships, possibly because acceptance standards are such that children from underprivileged families just do not succeed in getting in. Even fewer are the numbers of students who finance their education with loans. The fact is that students in Israel, unlike their American counterparts, do not need financial assistance for college - it is inexpensive enough as it is.

Tuition in Israel is cheap even when compared with figures from around the world. In Israel, a student pays $2,500 per year (rates are adjusted). In Australia, a student pays $5,800 (and this before an expected 25 percent increase); in Britain, up to $4,800; in Japan, $4,500; and in Canada, $4,300. Going south from there to the U.S., a student can find himself paying up to $13,000 on average.

On the other hand, if one manages to get to Socialist-Democratic Norway, one can get away with paying only $1,500. But the Norwegian way is disappearing from the world. A study conducted in the United States reveals that in the majority of states, the trend is toward ever-increasing tuition rates. This includes nations that historically did not charge tuition at all, and only started to do so recently, such as Germany.

Tuition is cheap here by local standards too. University tuition today stands at about NIS 8,000 a year, and this following the recommendations of the Winograd Committee - the same Winograd who is supposed to assess the results of the war - to lower tuition. Even prior to tuition being lowered, student loans were left unspoken for, a sign that Israeli students do not really need them.

It is not difficult to conclude: Private colleges are succeeding in Israel, even though the cost of attending one can reach NIS 25,000, three times as high as at public institutions, and despite the fact that, hands down, the public institutions are of far higher quality. The Treasury Ministry is now suggesting raising tuition to NIS 14,000 over a period of six years.

Israeli students do not resort to loans even though they could easily do so. Academic studies are one of the best investments for students interested in increasing their earning power. It is not by chance that the growth of the numbers enrolled in graduate programs is concentrated in the areas of business, law and education, the three fields where degrees automatically translate into higher earning potentials. Alternatively, in the graduate research fields, there is no noticeable rise in student numbers.

And even given the already inexpensive costs of education here by any standard, students will not hesitate to protest leaving things as they are. If the students would like to learn how to run a student protest, they can do what the French students did back in '68 when they almost toppled the government, and brought the country to the brink of anarchy with their protests.

If Israeli students would also like to take the time to research what happens to the decision-making process in a democratic country on the brink of anarchy, they can explore the giant wave of protests that same year in France. That wave resulted in free French higher education.

Today, almost 40 years later, the real cost of that free education is more evident than ever. Funds set aside for higher education in France are lower than those set aside for elementary schools; universities there have lost their solid reputation; a diploma from a public institution does not offer any advantage in the workplace; and whoever can afford to, either goes to study abroad or enrolls in one of the private schools.

What happened in France is not an unknown in the university world around the globe: the cost of funding research - for example, of setting up a well-equipped laboratory - is constantly on the rise. At the same time, global competition for good professors is intensifying. A popular professor in Germany, France or Israel can get job offers from any successful university in the world, with a package that would include moving costs. Additionally, they can get an almost unlimited expense account for research purposes. Few are the academics who would not be enticed by offers such as these.

This is exactly where Israeli universities find themselves today. The sad truth is that the universities here are slowly deteriorating, with their heyday long past. Saving these academic institutions is crucial, but the state, which already spends NIS 6 billion a year for university budgets, cannot do it alone. The students have to pay their share. It is interesting that for this, they are not so willing to take to the streets.