ISRAEL: Agreement ends Open University strike

Students at Israel's Open University went back to the classroom - and to their distance learning- following a seven-week strike.

A majority of the academics voted to accept the outlines of an agreement put forward by the Council for Higher Education that states the university will sign a collective wage agreement to regulate the academic staff pay. The agreement, similar to those attained with junior faculty of other universities last year, will form the basis for negotiations.

Unlike open universities in other countries that offer courses online or via distance learning, Israel's Open University also includes 'frontal instruction' in the classroom. It has more than 50 centres around the country, from Kiryiat Shmona in the north to Eilat in the south.

With 45,000 students, the university is the largest in the country. Studies are divided into courses - with students paying for each course and academic instructors and tutors also being paid on a per-course basis.

Frustration among the academics had been rising, said Joseph Maori, Director of Human Resources at the Open University. Both categories of academics, who had always worked on the basis of personal contracts, had a threatened sense of security because their positions were determined by the fluctuating number of students enrolled in particular courses.

Although instructors were allowed to work in a second position of teaching, they and the tutors felt their jobs lacked stability and so formed a union to try to strengthen their bargaining position. While the instructors received 12 months salary, the tutors were paid for only nine months.

"The tutors wanted to improve their conditions whereas we wanted to improve the conditions for those people who worked half time or more. They wanted a collective agreement," Maori said.

The points of dispute centred on the type of union the employees wanted to form - and the kind the university could negotiate with. Steven Stav, the council's Director General whose organisation proposed a compromise position, said the Open University management did not want to negotiate with the academics because it did not agree they should form a union.

"The Open University has operated for the last 35 years without any labour disputes. We have a lack of experience," Stav said. "However, the issues are on the way to being solved".