Striking Distance
Wed, 01/09/2008
Israel Correspondent

Jerusalem — There were a few spots available this week in the gated parking lot outside the Hebrew University’s Givat Ram campus. That’s about the only good news that has so far come out of the strike by 4,500 senior faculty members of the country’s seven universities, the longest such strike in the country’s history.

Launched in October, just after the start of the new semester (and five months after university students waged a strike) the faculty strike has wreaked havoc in an already troubled higher education system.

About half of the universities’ courses have been canceled due to the strike while the other half — taught by graduate students or adjunct lecturers — continue. In the meantime, students who have lost much of the semester have yet to receive assurances that at least part of their tuition will refunded.

Last week the country’s university presidents asked the National Labor Court to issue a back-to-work order by Jan. 13, a move that has angered faculty members.

“Our salaries have eroded dramatically over the past 10 years, a consequence of a Finance Ministry formula that hasn’t kept up with other sectors,” says Daniel Hershkowitz, head of the Technion’s faculty association. “We want to change the way our salaries are calculated.”

The mathematics professor insisted faculty salaries are part of a much larger problem in Israeli higher education, which has seen its government funding slashed $300 million over the past half decade.

“The universities in Israel are in very bad shape due to these cuts.  The result is that class sizes are much larger and the ratio to faculty has increased dramatically. Introductory courses that used to have, say, 50 students now have 200 to 250. Courses run by graduate students that once had 30 students now have 60. It’s made our lives impossible.”

Full professors earn an average monthly wage of NIS 25,000 (almost $6,500), much more than most Israelis but far below what seasoned academics earn overseas. That’s one reason many of Israel’s brightest academics move abroad, intensifying the country’s brain drain, Hershkowitz said.

No one denies that the big losers in the strike are the tens of thousands of students, including many who must take licensing exams, who are falling behind in their studies.

“The amount a student has been impacted depends on what he or she is studying,” explained one university administrator who requested anonymity. “The introductory courses are getting hit especially hard, as are certain subjects like Judaic studies, which are usually taught by senior educators. In the sciences students have a lot of labs that are taught by junior educators, and these are being held.”

A Jerusalem mathematics student said her course work and marriage plans have been affected by the strike.

“I was planning to get married at the end of the year and move out of Jerusalem, after the semester ended, but I haven’t finished my coursework. We’ve had to put our wedding plans on hold,” she said with a wan smile.

Anna Proviz, a second year student of political science and sociology at the Hebrew University, said that five of the eight courses she had planned to take this semester were cancelled.

Proviz said some of her striking professors had disseminated materials for students to study but that “we don’t know yet whether we’ll be tested on it.

“This is especially aggravating because I could have studied at a college,” Proviz said, referring to the numerous colleges that have sprung up all over the country in recent years. Though colleges turn out many excellent students, they do not enjoy the same status as universities.

“I wanted to get the best education possible, so I chose a university,” Proviz said.

Though Proviz did not doubt that her professors deserve a raise, she said the strike has gone on “way too long. At this point I don’t think they care about anyone but themselves.”

Yoav Moriah, an associate professor at the Technion who is participating in the strike, said students affected by the strike need to see the larger picture.

“We’re fighting for higher education, which has been under fiscal attack for the past several years. We’ve been working without a wage agreement for the past six years and have taken cuts when the university administration asked us to.”

Unless something is done to retain Israeli academics, the universities will go downhill, Moriah said.

“In some subjects, like physics or medicine or economics or law, academics earn double or triple what they can earn in Israel. The economics department at Tel Aviv University hasn’t been able to fill all its positions because post-doc students don’t come back to Israel.”

Almost all Israeli doctoral students go overseas for their post-doctoral work if they want to secure an academic position at an Israeli university.

“You can destroy a university in a very short time,” Moriah said.  “Once academics don’t return to the universities, the quality that took years and years to generate is almost impossible to replace. Our universities and students deserve better,” he said.