University Strikes and Elections

My primary job these days is as a Phd Candidate in the Computer Science Department of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJI).   I've been at it for three years already and probably have another two to go before I finish my degree.  One of the things I like best about being in a university environment is the chance to interact with students.  I really enjoy teaching.   Part of the fun is that I'm an extrovert and teaching is like theater.   The other part is that teaching really sharpens your understanding of a topic.

As you may have heard, the university presidents in Israel have decided not to open the new school year.  The problem started three years ago with the Shochat Commission on Higher Education.   The commission was tasked with addressing the declining state of higher education is Israel caused by years of budget cuts and brain drain to the United States.

During the commission hearings, it became clear to student leadership that the resulting report would recommend a serious increase in tuitions.  The students tried to get the commission to change its mind by striking for 41 days during the 2006/2007 school year.  The students lost the strike.  They returned after an agreement that the government would not implement any of the tuition changes before consulting with the student leadership.

In July of 2007, the final Shochat report recommended raising undergraduate tuition by %70 to NIS 14800 and addition funding of NIS 1.5 billion from the Treasury.  The tuition raise was proposed not as a lump sum, but as a lower initial cost followed by monthly payments for 10 years.   In effect, the commission wanted to raise tuition and offset it by offering student loans.  Because of the political situation in Israel (then and now), the government accepted the report, but refused to actively implement its suggestions.

During the 2007/2008 school year, the senior lecturers (those with tenure) walked out on strike for 79 days.  Because of the budget crisis, they had not had a raise in 7 years.  The lecturers won an immediate %24 pay raise.  They argued that the cost of their salaries would not affect the state of higher education.  Of course, no-one knew how these new expenses would be generated.

Eight months later, the universities looked into their coffers and realized that there were insufficient funds for the 2008/2009 school year.   Tuition was not raised and the Treasury refused to release any additional funding.  The added costs of the senior lecturers agreement only made matters worse.

In response, the presidents decided to close the universities.   Instead of opening on November 2nd as scheduled, we now face the possibility of another extended strike.

I agree with the presidents that the current situation is unacceptable. The Government of Israel has reduced funding for higher education for the past 8 years without offering any replacement options.  More than 300 tenured professors have left academia during those years and have not been replaced.  That amount is equivalent to the staffing of a full university.  So our current schools offer less education.

The really bad news is that there is no-one with whom to negotiate.  The current government is a caretaker government with the resignation of Ehud Olmert and the failure of Tzipi Livni to create a sustainable majority government.  Elections will occur no sooner than 90 days, which means in the last days of January 2009 or early February.  The state budget is also in limbo because it was not passed as required by law.

I don't see how the schools can open.  The treasury has no interest or ability to offer additional money with out a state budget.  The government could raise tuition, but that would require a bold leader (which by definition, we do not have at this time).  The schools literally do not have the money, so how can they open?

The only silver lining is that as a graduate student, my research is not related to coursework.  I ONLY have to publish new material.  Since the schools are closed, I might get more face time with my advisors.

I was scheduled to teach a really cool course this semester.  I've got it all prepared and I'm really excited about the material.  But that's on hold for now.

Please pray for the students and the universities.  Education is infrastructure.  The system will keep running for some time without maintenance and improvements, but eventually, it will break down.  Israel's future as a high-tech powerhouse is based on its students, but if we no longer have students, then we will fall to the wayside.


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