Israeli presidents fight minister

January 18, 2002

Israel's university presidents are opposing government plans to reduce the power of leading universities on the country's Council for Higher Education.

Education minister Limor Livnat intends to increase the representation of the country's colleges and public figures and reduce the representation of the country's research universities on the 25-member council. Her choice of appointees includes a lawyer representing the local branch of the University of Derby.

Menachem Magidor, president of the Hebrew University and the new chair of the Organisation of University Heads, said that universities and colleges viewed the minister's move as "the greatest threat" the higher education system had ever faced. He said universities would use every legal means to stop her.

Ms Livnat heads the council, and has the authority to appoint its members, subject to cabinet approval. The council, Israel's only higher-education accrediting body, determines higher education policy and controls and allocates the higher education budget to public institutions.

Ms Livnat criticised the research universities, alleging in an article in the daily newspaper Ha'aretz last week that they "have operated like a commercial cartel, protecting the interests of one social stratum... Academe has become an insular world in its ivory tower... The academic community has raised a high wall around itself and has entrenched itself in the achievements of the past."

Some see the struggle between Ms Livnat and the universities as more than a fight over money and control. One writer in Ha'aretz said the dispute amounted to "a danger to the humanistic (scientific, secular) spirit of society". Others fear it will lead to privatisation.

The chairman of the Knesset's education committee, Zvulun Orlev, of the National Religious Party, outlined three questions central to the dispute:

* Should university presidents serve on the council at all?

* Should university representatives constitute a majority?

* Should representatives on the council be people holding high positions in higher education, as the universities contend?

"These arguments between the education minister and the universities are not contributing to the health of the education system," Mr Orlev said.

The cabinet has to approve the members of the new council by next month. The council has three permanent members: the education minister who serves as the chair, the head of the national student union and the chair of the planning and budgeting committee, currently Nehemia Levtzion.

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