Israel's minister of education, Amnon Rubinstein, was this week trying to find savings of 151 million shekels (Pounds 33.5 million) in his ministry's spending to meet government expenditure cuts announced by the finance ministry.
The reduction in the education budget constitutes more than 20 per cent of the cuts demanded in a savings drive that has particularly upset government coalition members from the left-wing Meretz party.
The influence of the new budget constraints on plans for an extension to the length of the school day, and the fixing of maximum class sizes is likely to cause most concern among parents and teachers. A special investigating committee is to be set up in the next couple of weeks to look at these issues although its findings will not bind the government to take action. Higher education will lose about 2 per cent of the annual higher education budget. Avraham Shohat, the minister of finance, emphasised that those ministries that had been asked to make the largest cuts were also those that had received significant budget increases in recent years.
These increases have been used to support the expansion of the higher education sector and to finance an agreement ending a prolonged pay and conditions dispute that brought the universities to a standstill for six weeks last year. The finance ministry was directly involved in the negotiations to end the strike, making a revenge motive the most popular explanation for the budget cuts in the refectories and staff common rooms.
Almost half of the savings are reported as being targeted at expenditure on human resources and salaries, the remaining portion falling under the more general heading of "government support for higher education". It is expected that the most likely approach to realising the required savings will involve modest economies being made across a wide range of activities, rather than the curtailment of any specific schemes.
However, sources at the Council for Higher Education are adamant that the cuts will not influence either the pay and conditions of academic staff, or the quality of teaching provision. "We are still formulating a response to the budget demands and no decisions have been taken concerning where cuts in expenditure will fall" said a spokeswoman, adding that "the quality of teaching will not suffer under any circumstances".
Israel's tertiary education sector has expanded rapidly in recent years, financed mainly through the private sector, although relying on some government support for infrastructure and other capital expenditures. The reduction in the higher education budget is likely to cause some disruption to the development plans of many of the country's colleges that have been picking up the overspill from the overcrowded universities.