ISRAEL: Academics oppose upgrading Ariel

Two hundred and fifty academics representing universities and colleges in Israel have signed a letter sent to the Council for Higher Education urging it not to recognise the college in the West Bank town of Ariel as either a university centre or a university.

The aim of the letter, as Miriam Eliav-Feldon of the University of Tel Aviv's history department and one of its instigators explained, was to get members of the council, whose planning and budgeting committee is responsible for funding universities and colleges in Israel, to state they would not upgrade the Ariel college to the level of a university.

Although the college in Ariel was officially recognised by the Council for Higher Education 15 years ago, Eliav-Feldon thinks that even this was a mistake. Unlike all accredited universities and colleges inside the Green Line in Israel, the college in Ariel is subordinate to the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria, and thus answerable to the Israel Defense Forces GOC Central Command.

Even though the Council for Higher Education is not willing to recognise the college in Ariel as a university, it continues to fund it as a college. Last year, the college received NIS 75 million (US$20 million) from the council's planning and budgeting committee , out of the college's total budget of NIS 240 million (US$65 million).

The recent order by Defense Minister Ehud Barak to have the college in Ariel officially recognised as a university centre has been vehemently opposed by the council in Jerusalem which contends "there is no academic need for another university".

A spokesman denied the council had received a letter from the academics and said the issue was not its concern but rather fell under the jurisdiction of the Israel Defense Forces Ground Operations Coordinator (GOC) Central Command.

The move follows earlier decisions by the Israeli government, then led by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, to pass a resolution in 2005 saying it "saw national importance in converting the college to a university".

Recently, Chair of the council's planning and budgeting committee, Manuel Trajtenberg, said: "There will be no developments on the matter without the committee agreeing to it. It's inconceivable for another research university to arise in Israel within the next 20 years...

"I have doubts as to whether there is indeed a need for the seven research universities Israel has today. When we examine the level of the various faculties, we have barely five universities at a suitable level."

The academics wrote that while the council in Judea and Samaria could grant the college whatever status it liked, "the council in Jerusalem must declare that it is not party to such recognition. It was a mistake from the start to allow the creation of a college outside the borders of the State of Israel and to give it Council for Higher Education recognition, but insult must not be added to injury".

Eliav-Feldon said: "I wanted the Council for Higher Education in Jerusalem, which does not recognise the college at Ariel as a university centre or university, to say so explicitly. If it does not recognise it, then it should not fund it even as a college

"And if it disavows its jurisdiction over the college at Ariel, it will help us to defend ourselves against those asking for an academic boycott... My demonstrations may not have a great effect but at least, I `saved my own soul'."