Ariel gets university upgrade approval pending court decision

The University Center of Samaria in Ariel has received approval to be upgraded to the status of a fully fledged university – pending a decision of Israel’s High Court. The move that will create Israel’s first settler university was rubber-stamped last week at a special meeting of the Council for Higher Education.

In a statement released after the meeting, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar said: “I am convinced that the establishment of the eighth university in Israel will be a blessing for the entire education system. Ariel didn’t get special favours from anyone. It deserves to be a university and is the only one that was established according to criteria and standards.”

However, the hard-won approval follows a series of controversial decisions.

Much of the controversy has been over Ariel’s location in the West Bank in a population centre annexed to ‘greater Israel’. There has been political opposition especially in left-wing circles, and existing research universities have opposed the upgrade on the grounds that they have been “starved of funding for years” and should receive any extra money available.

The Ariel University Center upgrade was first approved in July 2012 by the Council for Higher Education in Judea and Samaria (CHE-JS), which was established in 1997 after the Council for Higher Education in Israel proper refused to deal with issues relating to academic institutions in areas over the Green Line.

Manuel Trajtenberg, chair of the Council for Higher Education’s planning and budgeting Committee, the body responsible for funding higher education institutions, denounced the move some time ago, saying that the CHE-JS “lacks the legitimacy to decide whether to recognise the Ariel University Center as a university”.

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”. But the upgrade was later approved by the committee.

Two weeks ago, Israel’s Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein ruled that there was “nothing preventing the Ariel University Center from being recognised as an accredited university”.

This prompted Defence Minister Ehud Barak to order the head of Central Command of the Israeli army, Nitzan Alon, to approve the recommendations of the CHE-JS to upgrade the institution in Ariel to the status of a research university. The military was involved because of its powers over West Bank settlements.

Amid mounting opposition to the upgrade last year, in August the Council of Presidents of Israeli Universities, which represents all research universities, filed a petition in the High Court of Justice against the recognition of the Ariel University Center as a full-fledged university.

“We are sorry the attorney general is backing a flawed measure infected by political interests and foreign considerations, which will inflict a disaster on higher education in Israel.

“It is absurd that at no stage was the decision’s reasonableness examined in an appropriate fashion regarding the academic standard of the political college in Ariel. The issue is before the High Court and we believe the decision will be nullified,” the presidents said.

A preliminary discussion between the sides – all research universities except for Bar-Ilan University and their legal representation versus the Council for Higher Education and the State Attorney – will be held in the Supreme Court on 24 January.

Whether or not the Ariel University Center meets the academic criteria and is finally upgraded to the status of a research university, the facts remain that this controversial institution situated in the West Bank settlement of Ariel is seen by many as a political pawn in the hands of right-wing politicians.

The special meeting of the Council for Higher Education this week, to approve the Ariel University Center upgrade, was held two weeks before national elections.