Israel's seven research universities face 30 per cent budget cuts unless they implement government-inspired changes to their governance that some fear will erode academic freedom.
The changes were raised in a 2000 report that recommended stripping power from senates and boards of governors and concentrating it in university executives. It also recommended that rectors be hired and fired by university presidents.
The issues were taken up in a more recent report by a committee headed by Shlomo Grossman, chairman of the Council for Higher Education planning and budgeting committee.
Some academics think that the proposed changes could also affect the CHE, which has served as a buffer between higher education and the political system.
Yaron Ezrahi, professor of political science at the Hebrew University, said that as universities received 60 to 70 per cent of their money from the government, Benjamin Netanyahu, the finance minister, was in a position to "tell the universities to restrict their internal organisation to make it more hierarchical".
Professor Ezrahi and many of his colleagues disagreed with the attempt to reduce the number of academics on the senate from 600 to 71 and with the effort to cut their representation on the executive council so that academic staff would lose their majority.
He said academics were in a "fatalistic mood". "It is not clear how much energy they have to fight the government," Professor Ezrahi said.
Yair Censor, lecturer in mathematics at Haifa University and chairman of the Inter-Senate Committee for the Protection of the Academic Independence of the Universities in Israel, which includes representatives from each of the country's seven research universities, said that 30 per cent of the universities' budgets would be withheld unless they agreed to the changes.
Professor Censor said that, if the changes were implemented, there would be more centralised control and a potential loss of academic freedom. He said this ran contrary to the 1958 Higher Education Law, which says that every institution of higher education in Israel can conduct its academic and administrative business as it deems fit within the budget that it is allocated.
He said that the finance ministry wanted to inject principles of a business organisation model. "The chairman of an academic department does not have to be hired and fired by the president," he said.
The deadline for making the required institutional changes is January 2005, and Professor Censor assumes the changes will be brought before the boards of governors meetings at the seven universities in May, June and July.