THE DEATH of Zvulun Hammer, Israel's education minister, has re-opened political-religious speculation about the future of the higher education system.
The 62-year-old leader of the right-wing National Religious Party, who as education minister also served as chairman of the Israel Council for Higher Education, was known across the political spectrum to steer a fair and independent course.
Nehemia Levtzion, chairwoman of the council's planning and budgeting committee, said: "Despite his commitment to some kind of ideology, he tried to be beyond sectarian politics. He understood his role as chairman of the council; his main task was to defend it, so it would be independent of politics."
She said Mr Hammer's death raised the question of whether the next minister, who will be from the same party, would do the same.
Mr Hammer, who held Israel's education portfolio for over ten years, initiated the policy of free secondary school for all. This opened up education to the less privileged. The number of students passing their matriculation exams and entering higher education doubled.
"He was responsible for the expansion of higher education. In the past ten years student numbers rose from 70,000 to 140,000 (in universities and independent regional colleges)," Professor Levtzion said.
Menachem Magidor, president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, praised his policy of "non-interference" in the day-to-day running of higher education.
Ozer Schild, head of the pedagogic secretariat of the education ministry, said that Hammer succeeded in persuading the finance ministry to agree to a long-range plan for budgeting.
There are fears in secular circles that a new education minister might interfere with the independence of higher or other types of education. He or she could also backtrack on the expansion of secular regional colleges.
Amnon Rubinstein, a former education minister, said: "The concept of a wider higher education through the regional colleges has become such a consensual part of a national policy that I don't see any minister of education consciously backtracking, perhaps only indirectly.
"Maybe a future minister of education will prefer religious institutions and will not build regional colleges. If so, we could face a danger of not expanding according to plan. By the year 2000, every second student studying for a bachelors degree should be in a regional college and not a university ... I want every Israeli to be able to find a place in Israel so that they won't have to travel abroad."
Mr Hammer also initiated two five-year plans aimed at reducing the dropout rate among Arab and Druze 12th-graders and increasing the numbers in those groups passing matriculation.