by Gideon Alon and Tamara Traubman | Haaretz | 2 May 2005
The cabinet voted 13-7 Monday to confer university status on Judea and Samaria College in Ariel, less than two weeks after a major British lecturers union sparked wide controversy by declaring a boycott against Bar-Ilan University for its links to the West Bank college.
The vote was held amid acrimonious debate in the cabinet over the political significance of upgrading the status of a college in a West Bank settlement. Likud ministers followed Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's lead in supporting the Ariel proposal, while Labor ministers - with the exception of Dalia Itzik, who abstained - complied with Vice Premier Shimon Peres' call to vote against it.
The government also unanimously approved a proposal to combine a number of northern colleges into a Galilee university, an initiative that has been promoted recently by Peres.
Sharon said making the Ariel college a university is a way of strengthening Jewish settlement of the West Bank, while Interior Minister Ophir Pines-Paz (Labor) spoke out against bringing politics into higher education unnecessarily. Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon (Labor) denigrated the move as an appeal to cheap populism.
The Musawa Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel harshly condemned the move, saying the decision was based on political motives.
The center also called on the government to proceed with the establishment of an Arab univeristy in the Galilee, a process the center said has been frozen since Education Minister Limor Livnat took office.
Responding to criticism of the Ariel college upgrade, Health Minister Dan Naveh (Likud) accused the Labor Party of "a bankruptcy of Zionism" and of moving to the far left of the political spectrum.
"I thought until now that there is a consensus in Israel [about the acceptability of Ariel], and today we learned that the Labor Party is prepared to abandon Ariel," Naveh said.
The college has lately been under fire, albeit indirectly, by the British Association of University Teachers. The group decided last month to impose an academic boycott on Bar-Ilan and Haifa universities, citing what the union defined as the schools' collaboration with the crimes of the occupation.
The teachers association said that because of its ties with Judea and Samaria College, Bar-Ilan "is directly involved in the occupation of the Palestinian territories contrary to UN resolutions." The union said Haifa University had restricted the academic freedom of staff members who have spoken out against government policies, citing the university's threat to dismiss historian Dr. Ilan Pappe.
Lever for strengthening education
The government approved a resolution stating it "sees national importance" in changing the status of these educational institutions "as a lever for strengthening the higher education system in the region."
The resolution tasks Education Minister Limor Livnat with "working to examine" establishing the universities "in coordination with the CHE and the planning and budgeting committee," and reporting on progress to the government within 60 days.
Senior officials at Council for Higher Education (CHE) in Israel are opposed to establishing these universities, which they say are neither needed nor affordable with a higher education budget slashed by some billion shekels in recent years.
Northern colleges say uniting them into a new university will increase access to higher education and streamline work at the existing colleges. They envision a multi-campus institution operating at the existing colleges (Jezreel Valley, ORT Braude, Tel-Hai, Jordan Valley, Western Galilee and Safed), and a new central campus being established, most likely in Carmiel.
College heads have been promoting the plan for several years and recently received a substantial boost when Peres joined the cause and enlisted businessman Arnon Milchan, who promised to donate $100 million and wants to head the nonprofit organization in charge of the university.
Livnat, who as education minister also chairs the CHE, is in favor of creating both universities, and says Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also wants to upgrade the Ariel college, the largest public college with 6,276 students enrolled this year.
"Upgrading the colleges into universities is designed to support the settlement vision, out of a national interest of the State of Israel," Livnat said.
However, other senior CHE officials are staunchly opposed to the plan. The CHE, which is legally responsible for licensing new institutions of higher education, has previously decided against establishing another research university in the next four years.
CHE deputy chairman, Yehezkel Teller, says that new universities would be detrimental to the existing system of institutions, which are already reeling from budget cuts.
Housing Minister Isaac Herzog said he would vote against upgrading the Ariel college, saying that establishing a university in a "problematic" area would "take away precious resources that do not meet Israel's priorities, first and foremost the development of the Negev and Galilee."
All of these colleges are still far from being universities: they grant only undergraduate degrees and conduct relatively little research, mostly aimed at developing new products, rather than the basic research for obtaining new knowledge.