Ruling due on full university status for Israeli centre in occupied area

The University Centre of Samaria in Ariel took a step closer to gaining full status as an Israeli university – the first in the occupied West Bank – by approving the appointment of a future president last week.

However, the key decision will come on 15 July, when the region’s Council for Higher Education (CHE) is due to rule on the future status of this controversial institution located in the Israeli settlement.

That date is when the institution’s current ‘university centre’ status, a temporary status conferred by the Israel defence forces in 2006, is due to expire.

This is not the university centre’s first attempt to upgrade its status, and earlier this year, more than 1,000 faculty members of universities in Israel – one in four of the country’s academics – opposed the move by signing a petition, which was sent to the education ministry, the presidents of all of the country’s universities and members of the CHE’s planning and budgeting committee.

It called for a halt to what academics called “the attempt to enlist academia in service of the occupation”.

The petition was aimed at trying to “put pressure to stop the upgrade”, said Nir Gov of the physical chemistry department of the Weizmann Institute, who organised the protest. He said that the university presidents have agreed to oppose the upgrade.

“The Ariel University Centre is tarnished by political motives. It is imperative not to mix academia and political agendas,” he said.

Gov alleges that the make-up of the CHE is now “rigged”, with the majority of its representatives coming from colleges; whereas there are currently no representatives, for example, from the Weizmann Institute.

In his view, this means that the cards are stacked in favour of the University Centre at Ariel being accredited as a full research university.

“The [institution at Ariel] is on occupied land and in an area with a de facto apartheid regime. Ninety per cent of the people [from the neighbouring area] cannot enter the settlement or the university. It is an abnormality, which crosses a red line.

“The college should not be there at all. This situation will only lead to boycotts since people will not be able to differentiate between Tel Aviv and Ariel,” Gov said.

“I thought it [1,000 signatories] would make a big difference because it is a quarter of all Israeli academics. [However] it is a bit late for us to win.” He said that the college represented a threat that could “poison daily life of Israeli academia”.

Set in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, which is 16.5 kilometres east of the Green Line and mostly separated by a barrier from the Palestinian town of Salfit, the university centre with 270 faculty members (not all of them full-time) has 10,000 students. Some 580 students are registered in masters programmes.

The institution has an annual budget of 300 million shekels (US$78 million), 110 million shekels of which comes from the CHE. Between 4% and 5% of the student body is made up of Israeli Arab students from villages west of the Green Line.

University heads and officials in the education and finance ministries are concerned that the move would siphon off much needed funds from universities in Israel.

Sources in the Treasury and in the planning and budgeting committee of the CHE, which oversees universities and colleges, have expressed concern that funding the institution in Ariel “could undermine the entire Israeli higher education system”.

Professor Dan Meyerstein, president of the University Centre of Samaria for the past 17 years, does not agree with this view.

He said that since the university centre is situated in the West Bank, beyond Israel’s Green Line, it comes under the jurisdiction of the Council for Higher Education of Judea and Samaria (CHE-JS), which oversees Israeli higher education in the occupied areas and – although appointed by Israel’s government – is separate from the Council for Higher Education.

A special committee appointed in 2006 by the CHE-JS will report to the Israeli CHE, which will then make its recommendations to the CHE-JS regarding whether the Ariel University Centre should be upgraded to the status of a university.

The CHE-JS says that the institution has met all of the academic criteria required of it to justify the upgrade. These include the requisite number of faculty members and the number of PhD candidates.

Meyerstein also said he did not believe in boycotts. “Science is based on the assumption that we don’t boycott it. If you do good science, no one boycotts. Science in academia should be open to everyone and should be judged only by quality,” he said.

It remains to be seen how Meyerstein’s successor, Professor Yehuda Danon, a physician by profession, will walk the fine line between academia and politics when he takes the helm of the university centre in September.

According to the spokesperson for Israel’s CHE, “no final decision has been made”, although the education minister supports the University Centre of Samaria becoming a university on two conditions: that the academic standard will be sufficient and that it will not damage the budgets of other universities.