New moves in West Bank centre’s controversial university status bid

The Israeli Council for Higher Education’s planning and budgeting committee has proposed a new category of funding in addition to the existing ones of colleges and universities – that of a ‘university centre’ – in an apparent attempt to sidestep a political storm over granting a West Bank centre university status.

The proposal of the council, which is responsible for deciding on and funneling government funds to Israel’s institutions, comes amid mounting controversy and accusations that the independence of the higher education system is being compromised.

And it comes a week before the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria, or CHE-JS – which is responsible for institutions in the occupied West Bank – is due to vote on whether the Ariel University Centre of Samaria should be upgraded to the status of a fully fledged university.

The political issue concerns creating an Israeli university in the occupied West Bank. One in four academics in Israel – more than 1,000 – recently signed a petition opposing the move on the grounds that it is an attempt to “enlist academia in the service of occupation”.

The planning and budgeting committee, known by the Hebrew acronym VATAT, has recommended that the university centre not be upgraded.

Recently Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz pledged more than NIS100 million ($25 million) to Ariel.

According to an editorial in Ha’aretz last week: “The budgeting committee of the Council for Higher Education is attempting to justify the move. It is putting together general criteria that will, of course, conform to the academic situation of the institution in Ariel.

“In fact, senior members of the committee concede that since the money is going to be given in any case, all they have left to do is to try to build a new model for higher education that justifies the existence of university centres as an interim phase between a college and a university.”

According to one source, on 17 July the CHE-JS is likely to vote in favour of Ariel being granted university status – with some kind of ‘probation period’.

If the body does not approve the upgrade, it could lead to a conflict between the Council for Higher Education and the government, since many officials in the current primarily right-wing government are in favour of Ariel being granted university status.

The source said that although it would be a precedent, the funds could be sent directly from the Ministry of Finance to the Ariel University Centre – not through VATAT.

The chancellor of the Ariel University Centre in Samaria, Yigal Cohen-Orgad, who is a former finance minister, said there had always been “strong opposition to the coming in of the ‘new guy’.

“Hebrew University fought against opening Tel Aviv University; Tel Aviv University and the Hebrew University fought against starting Bar-Ilan University; and the three of them fought against [the opening of] Haifa University. No one likes competition," the chancellor said.

“For the last 15 years, we have been functioning almost as a university,” he said. He cited technological, medical and a whole host of achievements, saying that academics and students “did not fall in love with Shomron [Samaria].

“Putin decided to introduce the United States to Russia. How did he do it? By opening a Silicon Valley in Russia at a cost of $6 billion. Who did they turn to for their partner? Ariel. Why would 12,000 students come to study with us?”

He said that Ariel University Centre conducted research in fields including education, medicine, health and homeland security – the latter with a company of the Ministry of Defence.

“Only 15% of students come from Judea and Samaria [the West Bank], with 85% coming from west of the Green Line.” Arguing only for the excellence of the Ariel University Centre, he asked: “Why would Arab students come to support a settler movement?”

Within five years of being upgraded from a college to a university centre, Cohen-Orgad continued, “we have developed academic ties with universities in the United States, England, Denmark, France, Germany, Russia and China”.

The university centre “also has its own professional journal, with articles from scholars from the University of Teheran, an Islamic University in Islamabad, the University of Cairo and Saudi Arabia”.

Cohen-Orgad concurred with a suggestion that the Council for Higher Education’s proposal of an entirely new funding model, which currently only the university centre at Ariel fits, was an attempt by the council to placate Ariel.

“We don’t want any favours, just to be given a fair chance. Even those lecturers who oppose the institution because of where it is situated did not criticise its academic level.”

Nir Gov of the physical chemistry department of the Weizmann Institute, who organised the petition of signatures earlier this year against the upgrade of the university centre, said that the college represented a threat that could “poison the daily life of Israeli academia”.

Concerns have also been expressed about greater funding for Ariel being at the cost of other, cash-strapped universities.

However Professor Dan Meyerstein, president of the Ariel University Centre, said: “Nothing is final.” VATAT had recommended that the Ariel centre should not be upgraded. But the Minister of Education said he would recommend that members of the CHE-JS vote in favour of the change.

“VATAT wants a 10-month delay until May 2013. Although VATAT voted against the upgrade, the accreditation and decision are in the hands of the Councils for Higher Education. The CHE-JS could [still] decide against VATAT.”

“We were told that in the discussions between VATAT and the Minister of Finance regarding the next academic year, if we agreed to their terms we would receive NIS30 million in the first year; NIS60 million in the second; NIS100 million in the third and NIS130 million in the fourth,” said Meyerstein.

“However, the executive committee of Ariel turned it down, not because of financial reasons, but because of academic aspects such as the need to have independent PhD students and a nominations committee etc.

“They will nominate a committee on 13 May – and a new budgeting model will be created. They have not made up their minds [about the third type of institution],” said Meyerstein.

Officials from the Council for Higher Education, including from VATAT, and from the committee of university presidents were unavailable for comment.