ISRAEL: Resolution of lecturers’ strike yields little

For Israel’s 4,500 senior university lecturers, it came as a surprise that their protest turned into an unprecedented three-month strike. What had started as a protest against a NIS1.2 billion (US$300 million) cut from the higher education budget ended in very real concern about the erosion in their salaries, increases they should get and how to set up a mechanism to prevent future salary erosion.

Most lecturers, and students for that matter, disagree with the recommendations of the government-appointed Shochat committee report on a reform in higher education. The report recommended a rise in tuition fees which has divided the higher education community.

Professor Menachem Magidor, president of the Hebrew University and the newly appointed chair of the Committee of University Presidents, expressed relief the strike was finally over. But Magidor said there was a lot of ‘damage’ to deal with although he also said the recommendations of the Shochat committee were reasonable and would result in more money being put into higher education.

Magidor said that while the obvious issue behind the strike was the comparative decline in salaries of Israel’s senior university lecturers, every 10 or12 years there was a faculty strike caused by the simple salary mechanism. The government had tried to impose the same contract on all public sectors, including university academics, but this meant there was no method of promotion.

While the strike resulted in a 24% rise in senior lecturers’ salaries, it is perceived by many not to have really solved any of the basic problems inherent in the higher education system. It is also estimated to have cost the Israeli economy as much as 6 billion shekels (US$1.5 billion).

Professor Shlomo Grossman, chair of the Council for Higher Education’s planning and budgeting committee, which is responsible for funding academic institutions, said the council did not have funds to cover shortfalls created by the strike.

While the salary for a full university professor currently amounts to only NIS 25,000 ($6,757) a month before tax and around NIS 17,000 ($4,600) after tax, under the new agreement, it will climb to NIS 30,000 ($8,108) or around NIS 23,000 ($6,216) after tax.

Magidor said that in a sense the strike settlement had made the situation worse. The university had to deal with the cost of the strike, including extending the academic year until the end of August, instead of the end of June, letting students stay in the dormitories – and forfeiting the rent that would otherwise have been earned on them. He estimated the cost of the fallout of the strike to the Hebrew University alone at NIS 40 million ($11 million).

University presidents were stuck in the middle between the government and the senior lecturers in the recent conflict and were perceived by the striking senior lecturers as having betrayed them. When the situation seemed to be facing a stalemate, the presidents tried to get a court injunction to force the lecturers back to the classrooms.

Although the presidents also threatened to close the country’s universities, Histadrut Labour Federation chair, Ofer Eini, interceded and it was his compromise of 24% which was accepted by the Finance Ministry as well as by the lecturers.

Adjustments to cope with the new situation include shortening the semester from 14 to 12 weeks, although Magidor said extra classes had been added.

Dr Hanna Taragan, a lecturer and researcher in art history at Tel Aviv University, said while she was ‘satisfied’ by the settlement of the strike which meant a rise in salary, like many other lecturers and students she is opposed to the “aggressive recommendations” of the Shochat committee.

Students who had counted on working in the summer and other holidays to pay their tuition fees will be faced with classes in a second semester lasting until the end of August. But the lecturers say they will do everything to make it easier for students, including teaching on Fridays and ignoring absences in class if they have to be at work.

“It is encouraging for us to earn more. However, the future of higher education is in law and computers and not in such subjects as Egyptology, for example. Every self-respecting university should have a department of Egyptology but it would be among the first departments to go if there were budget cuts,” Taragan said.