ISRAEL: Government back-down ends student strike

A five-week strike by more than 250,000 Israeli university and college students earlier this year was eventually abandoned after a deal with the government.

Student leaders called the strike to protest over government plans to cut spending on higher education and increase tuition fees. They were persuaded to return to campus when the government agreed that, over the next four years, it would restore NIS1.2 billion (US$300) million that had been cut from the higher education budget.

The government also agreed to freeze tuition fees for one year and consult with students before carrying out the recommendations of the government-appointed Shochat Committee.

The committee, named after former finance minister Avraham Shochat, had been considering a range of reforms, including raising tuition fees and introducing a system of student loans.

While universities and colleges across the country remained mainly empty, violence erupted on some campuses between students and police. Negotiations between student representatives, the government and the heads of the country’s main universities yielded little in the beginning.

The government had proposed keeping tuition fees at their current level of NIS8,600 ($2,155) per year for current students and those enrolling in 2008. But new students enrolling from 2009 would be subject to the increase the Shochat Committee is expected to recommend.

One female student participating in a round-table session on the ‘Politica’ TV analysis programme, said she could not afford the tuition fees with the money she earned from working as a cleaner and waitress.

Some academics backed the student strike with Dr Leah Mor, head of the National Council of Public College Lecturers, declaring it to be just. A significant number of students, however, did not support the strike and thought it went against their own interests.

The Committee of University Heads shared the students’ concerns about the future of higher education in Israel but warned of the potential damage to students the strike could cause by the loss of teaching hours.

With the strike over, university semesters were extended by two to four weeks, depending on the discipline, to allow students to catch up on lost class time.