"When I submit my recommendations to the Council for Higher Education, I will ask it to grant the Ariel University Center of Samaria the status of a university," Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar said Thursday, in response to the decision by the council's Planning and Budgeting Committee not to allow the center to become Israel's eighth recognized university.
“The council's monitoring committee has determined that the center successfully met all the benchmarks it was told to meet for the provisional period during which it functioned as a university center and has even exceeded expectations; the finance minister is willing to approve a supplemental higher education budget to attain this goal," Sa’ar said. "Israel can have eight universities; the number seven is not holy."
Sa'ar has previously said he supports accrediting the college as a university on condition that it meet academic standards and that the move not entail budget cuts to the other universities in Israel.
Culture and Sport Minister Limor Livnat also voiced her support for upgrading the center Thursday. "The center met all the necessary criteria; it was denied university status for unprofessional, or even political, reasons. But just as we dedicated the auditorium for cultural events in Ariel, so too will we dedicate the university in Ariel," Livnat said.
The committee's decision followed a comprehensive review of the higher education system in Israel. In the final vote, five members voted not to change Ariel's status, with one opposing the decision and one abstaining. Following the decision, the committee released a statement saying: "[We] recommend having the institution keep its current status as a university center for the time being."
Thursday's decision comes amid a heated debate over whether Israel should have another university and just over two years after Defense Minister Ehud Barak approved in principle the institution's request to be recognized as a university. Since Ariel lies in Judea and Samaria, the Defense Ministry is in charge of education there.
Last week, the Committee of University Heads sent a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Sa'ar, warning against the ramifications of having the center become a university. In the letter, they expressed concern that the budget for the new university would come at the expense of their institutions, and said Israel did not need another university. The university presidents welcomed Thursday’s decision, releasing a statement saying, "We congratulate the Planning and Budgeting Committee's resolution to perform an extensive review of higher education in Israel.”
The center is mostly funded by various government ministries, with the Defense Ministry and the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry funding most of the research there. While researchers at the institution plan to resume their normal activities in the wake of the decision, some have expressed their concern. Dr. Boaz Ben-Moshe and Dr. Nir Shvalb, who run a robotics lab in the center, said that if it was not recognized as a university many faculty members and students might leave.
Ariel center President Professor Dan Meyerstein attacked the decision, saying politics played a role. "There were two arguments made against the recognition. The first one was political and the second was economic, and both were flawed," he said Thursday. "The Budget and Planning Committee told me that even if we give up our dream of becoming a university we would still receive the funding that we had been promised, which comprises about 2 percent of the funds the committee manages."
Meyerstein further said that the institution's budget woould increase by NIS 330 million ($83.9 million) over the next four years, and the Council for Higher Education was expected to recognize the six new programs the center would like to introduce as part of the B.Sc. in engineering it offers.
A statement issued by the Council for Higher Education said the "budgetary framework that was been proposed during the negotiations was tailored according to the criteria that apply equally across the board to all academic institutions when it comes to budgeting by the Finance Ministry. However the center's executive committee rejected the understandings and agreements struck by the parties; the Planning and Budgeting Committee's decision from Wednesday is consistent with the proposed framework."
The committee’s decision could be overturned by the Judea and Samaria Council for Higher Education, which reports to the GOC Central Command, Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon. Even if Alon and the council were to decide to recognize Ariel as an university, it is the Planning and Budgeting Committee that decides whether or not to grant Ariel funding, an option it has already voted against.
The Ariel University Center of Samaria issued a statement after the committee’s decision, saying, "The Planning and Budgeting Committee is at the service of the old hegemony, which is ruled by a cartel made up of the heads of the seven current universities who serve their own narrow interests."
"If [Ariel] were an Arab university, it would have received official approval a long time ago," Samaria Regional Council head Gershon Mesika said Wednesday. Professor Amos Altshuler, a member of the Judea and Samaria Council for Higher Education, acknowledged the conflicting powers at work. "We must take into consideration the position of the Planning and Budgeting Committee, while at the same time understanding that the law authorizes the GOC Central Command to make the final decision."