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CAUT Bulletin Archives

November 2009

Report Reveals Injustices to Mideast Academic Staff

By Penni Stewart
Education International and CAUT are about to release a report on the status of academic staff in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. EI is a global union federation and an advocate for the rights of academic staff in more than 172 countries and territories.

EI routinely conducts reviews on the implementation of the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel — a document CAUT played a central role in crafting. The recommendation lays out principles of fairness in the terms and conditions of academic work, academic freedom, professional responsibility and self governance for academic staff.

The results of these reviews are published and distributed internationally. The most recent review, on Israel and Palestine, was undertaken by CAUT associate executive director David Robinson, who visited the area earlier this year.

Robinson met with academic staff, union officials, students, administrators and human rights organizations in Israel and the West Bank. Due to travel restrictions, he had to rely on telephone interviews with colleagues in Gaza. The report and recommendations flowing from it will be presented to CAUT Coun­cil this month.

The context for Robinson’s report lies in the obligation of member states to meet standards set out in the 1997 UNESCO recommendation, which recognizes the teaching profession’s right to academic freedom and institutional autonomy and accountability as essential to achieve fairness and academic freedom.

Robinson’s report reveals that governance has become a concern for Israeli academics. A 2001 report recommended reforms that many felt would severely constrict collegial governance and university autonomy, and threaten academic freedom. There are also concerns about worsening working conditions. Faculty unions have argued that lower salaries, compared to academics in North America, have prompted many academic staff to find work abroad, leaving a significant shortfall of academic staff in Israel. Increasing casualization is also eroding working conditions for academic staff and threatens academic freedom.

The larger challenge to academic freedom however, derives from debate within Israel over the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. While many Israeli academic staff speak out freely on this political issue, there have been a number of cases of institutional and external reprisals against those who express controversial opinions. Political activities and demonstrations have been severely restricted at some universities and colleges and some protesters have been arrested.

In the West Bank and Gaza, higher education is provided by publicly funded, nonprofit and autonomous institutions, government-sponsored institutions and private universities. The financial situation of universities and colleges is in crisis, however, and as a result private financing has increased dramatically. Tuition fees are rising beyond the means of the majority of students. The global fiscal crunch has led to a decline in donations, further exa­cerbating a tenuous situation.

Working conditions for academic staff are generally poor and wages depressed. Teaching conditions are difficult, with heavy teaching loads and staffing shortages. Research and teaching are severely hampered by Israeli-imposed restrictions on a variety of imports, among them scientific and research materials, computers, laboratory equipment, and even chalk and textbooks. Not surprisingly there is a “brain drain”of academic staff to Jordan and other Arab states.

Overriding the effect of these working conditions, which are common in poor countries, Robinson’s report notes the devastating impact of the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the travel restrictions imposed on West Bank residents that have made normal academic routines nearly impossible.

Delays and closings of checkpoints routinely prevent students and faculty from reaching their campuses to study and teach. Travel restrictions force early closings and the security barrier effectively prevents inter-campus travel for many students and academic staff. Entry into Israel for research or study is very difficult for Palestinian academics in the West Bank and there are many impediments to their attending conferences and developing collaborative research outside of the region. Students in Gaza have generally been denied the right to study outside, even in the West Bank.

Among its findings, Robinson’s report describes arbitrary arrests and detention of academic staff and students by the Israeli military forces. In addition, it notes the ongoing political conflict between Hamas and Fatah has also resulted in detentions and harassment of students and staff.

The report concludes that there are grave violations of UNESCO principles in the West Bank and Gaza. I urge you to read his report when it is released and I hope you will support CAUT’s action with our international colleagues in addressing these issues.