Hague's poor university exam

By Geoffrey Alderman, September 24, 2012

I make no apologies for bringing to your attention again a matter that I raised in my column two months ago. On that occasion, I berated the Israeli academic establishment for its frankly self-serving opposition to the proposal to upgrade the status of Ariel University Centre, in the West Bank, to that of a full university.

I explained that, with some 14,000 students, and having for some time awarded its own degrees, Ariel was a university in all but name. I added that, although Israeli opposition to the desired status upgrade appeared to be grounded in the fear that such a move might bring down upon the whole of Israeli higher education the wrath of the international boycotting community, the underlying motive of Ariel's detractors was to protect the monopoly of access to public funding currently enjoyed by existing Israeli universities. "Ariel," I added, "is in danger of falling victim to a species of particularly malodorous selfishness that protects privilege without the slightest shame."

A great deal of lobbying has gone on since then. On September 9, Israel's cabinet agreed to endorse Ariel's application for conversion to a fully accredited university. Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar declared that this would be good for the entire higher education system. "The government sees the national importance of the conversion of the centre to a university… 40 years have passed since the last research university was established in Israel and since then the population has tripled. The higher education system must continue to… meet the need for quality education and advanced study."

The row over Ariel's upgrade is, however, far from over. Israel's Council for Higher Education, which represents the academic establishment, has - predictably - started legal action in order to protect that establishment's privileged funding position. And it has found a most unlikely ally in the shape of British Foreign Secretary William Hague.

Scarcely 48 hours after the announcement about Ariel's upgrade, Hague - a member of the British cabinet but not as far as I am aware of its Israeli counterpart - saw fit to intervene. In a trenchant statement he expressed his disappointment at the creation of "an additional barrier to peace with the Palestinians". If the upgrade went ahead (he thundered), "this would lead to the creation of Israel's first university beyond the Green Line." The British government, he continued, had taken "a firm stand against those who seek to undermine Israel's legitimacy by boycotting educational and cultural institutions." And, so saying, Hague called on Netanyahu's government "to reconsider its approach as a matter of urgency".

Hague's intervention is troubling. It amounts to a brazen intervention in another country's domestic affairs. How, I wonder, would the British government react if a senior member of Netanyahu's government were to issue a statement calling on the Home Office to "reconsider" its decision to tear up London Metropolitan University's licence to recruit international students? This decision has caused untold misery to 2,000 or so LMU students, who now face the prospect of deportation, and cast a grim shadow over Britain's professed desire to welcome international (including of course Israeli) students. Several mainly Commonwealth governments have already made statements criticising the decision. The Israeli government could easily justify adding its name to this list. But it has not.

Hague's supporters claim that his intervention is intended merely to forestall any move to institute a UK boycott of the entire Israeli academic system. This claim strikes me as disingenuous, not least because, when all is said and done, all that is happening is a status upgrade. It is not as if a university is being constructed (let alone being built beyond the Green Line) from scratch.

Hague's intervention can do no good but might well do some harm, because it offers the academic boycotters the possibility of claiming that their activities enjoy some degree of justification from the British government.

Perhaps (it has been suggested) this is precisely what was intended. If so, can someone from Conservative Friends of Israel tell Hague that where Israeli higher education is concerned he should try to realise that the best he can do is defer to his ignorance?

Last updated: 3:45pm, September 24 2012