Full university status for West Bank centre provokes opposition

A decision by the Council for Higher Education-Judea and Samaria (CHE-JS) to upgrade the Ariel University Centre to the status of a fully fledged university – the first in the occupied West Bank – has prompted widespread educational and political criticism.

The council has jurisdiction over all of academia in the West Bank, although the decision has yet to be confirmed by the West Bank army commander.

According to the army spokesman’s office, the CHE-JS has yet to convey the decision to the head of the central command. “Once the request is received, it will be addressed by him,” the office said. “The decision will be conveyed from the CHE to the Ministry of Defence, which will then convey it to the head of the central command.”

However, the decision goes against a recommendation by the planning and budgeting committee (VATAT) of the national Council for Higher Education not to upgrade Ariel at this time. Until now, all university funding has been decided upon and channelled through VATAT.

Education Minister Gideon Saar expressed his support for the upgrade, although he chairs the CHE, which opposed the move.

The committee of the seven Israeli university presidents, VERA, strongly protested against the decision. “This is a political decision and it was preordained. The prime minister now needs to show leadership and prevent a disaster from befalling the higher education system in Israel.”

VERA added that “any additional budgets should have been given to the existing research universities, which have been starved of funding for years”.

Although Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz has pledged NIS100 million (US$25 million) to the Ariel University Centre over the next two years, according to sources this sum does not come near what the university centre says it needs to complete its transformation into a fully fledged university.

Ariel says it will need NIS130 million annually in addition to the NIS100 million that it already received from VATAT for the 2011-12 academic year.

Recently Professor Manuel Trajtenberg, the chairman of VATAT, sent a memo to chairman of the CHE-JS Professor Amos Altshuler, stating that the panel (CHE-JS) “lacks the legitimacy to decide whether to recognise the Ariel University Centre as a university”.

In a memo obtained by Ha’aretz, Trajtenberg said the panel was “tainted by conflict of interest and did not meet the standard of academic scrutiny upheld in Israel and abroad”.

He added that “discussion must not be on a political-ideological basis”, as this would “fatally harm academia”.

According to Trajtenberg, the fact that Altshuler headed the panel “meant that there was no separation between the recommending committee [the panel] and the body charged with deciding on the recommendation [the CHE-JS]".

Nir Gov, of the physical chemistry department of the Weizmann Institute, who previously organised a petition against recognition, which was signed by around one in four of Israel’s academics, warned that the decision could provoke an international reaction in the form of boycotts.

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.