We Don't Want Excellence

The academic faculty only had to strike for one day before the government surrendered to their demands. The next stage will be a total surrender to the students' demands.

The academic faculty only had to strike for one day before the government surrendered to their demands. The next stage will be a total surrender to the students' demands. That's how it goes when all the prime minister wants is peace and quiet, the finance minister is wrapped up in police investigations and the education minister is frightened by the sound of her own voice.

Former finance minister Abraham Shochat may not know it yet, but the committee over which he is presiding - appointed by the government to recommend reforms in Israel's higher education system - is floating belly-up. None of its elegant conclusions stand to be implemented. The routine will not be broken by reforms or alterations.

As for the universities, they will continue to suffer such afflictions as budget depletions and brain-drain. Their status will only continue to deteriorate until the next committee is formed. Except by then, it may already be too late.

Education Minister Yuli Tamir, the Education Ministry's great promise, is turning out to be a major flop. She entered office presuming to promote reforms in the elementary and secondary school system, but she lacks the courage to resist the various teachers' associations and stand up to their interests.

She spoke of far-reaching changes to universities, including raising tuitions - while granting loans - but it is clear now that this will not materialize. She is aware of the tremendous wastage accumulating within the ministry, which amounts to billions of shekels, but she is doing nothing about it because she does not want to upset anyone.

The only available course of action still open to Tamir is to demand further funds. She has actually begun to excel in that. She has demanded and, indeed, is demanding huge additions of billion of shekels to the budget. This is quite the winning formula: Make unreasonable demands and then blame the treasury when they are not met.

The letter of surrender Prime Minister Ehud Olmert signed yesterday, together with Finance Minister Abraham Hirchson and Tamir, states that the academic faculty will reserve the right to veto any recommendation by the Shochat Committee concerning pay. It also stipulates that "the government will not act to implement any decision prior to its approval by the faculty staff." Moreover, any amendment the committee decides on would entail drafting a new collective agreement with the faculty staff.

Embarrassingly enough, the current agreement worsens the situation that prevailed prior to the committee's recommendations. Back then, university presidents were free to attract academic staff from abroad through under-the-table agreements. Thus, they managed to secure sought-after professors and researchers. The new agreement forbids them from doing that.

Before it, they only had to deal with the wages director at the Finance Ministry. Now, however, the entire issue will be subject to veto by academic staff organizations, which are unreceptive to any sort of organizational flexibility. The organizations have maintained that the Shochat Committee was seeking to abolish the notion of permanency and force the academic staff to sign personal contracts. The truth is somewhat different.

All the committee was seeking was to afford management an elementary degree of discretion, so university presidents could offer "personal grants" to "leading scientists" in an attempt to lure them back into Israel.

The objective was to try to compete with the greater budgets of competing academic institutions abroad. And the final aim is a worthy one: to put an end to the brain-drain posing a real concern to the State of Israel.

All in all, these grants apply to some 2 percent of professors - 26 in total. Israeli higher education stood to gain a lot from their return. Now they will stay abroad, profiting foreign academic institutions. The academic staff have no interest in excellence. They opt to extol mediocrity.

Under normal circumstances, the prime minister and finance minister would oppose the faculty and struggle for the general interests of the state. But these days, there is no one to confront them. There is no leadership - it's every man for himself.

Olmert is engrossed in staving off the investigations initiated by the state comptroller and the projected conclusion of the Winograd Committee, examining his performance during the Second Lebanon War. As for Hirchson, he is periodically summoned to be investigated by the police and he is powerless to resist anything. The treasury is nonexistent, and its willingness for concessions is limitless.

The students know this. They will not end the strike until Olmert, Hirchson and Tamir surrender to their demands as well. Shochat, for his part, will probably resign soon enough.