College links put pressure on boycotters

By Leon Symons, July 25, 2008

A groundbreaking scheme that strengthens links between universities and academics in Britain and Israel has been launched simultaneously in London and Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown signed an agreement on Sunday with Premier Ehud Olmert to start the Britain-Israel Research and Academic Exchange Partnership. BIRAX, as it is known, will give grants primarily to junior academics, mainly in scientific research.

Launching the partnership in the Commons on Monday, Higher Education minister Bill Rammell said: “It is entirely right that, alongside building our shared commercial interests, we should work to strengthen our educational and cultural links.”

The scheme will put more pressure on the University and College Union to drop a motion passed at its congress in May that critics see as a “back-door” boycott of Israeli academics. Mr Rammell reiterated on Monday both his and the government’s disapproval of UCU’s stance. The union has yet to announce whether or not the motion will become policy.

Mr Rammell said later: “This was not an explicit response to the UCU boycott but it certainly led to reflection within the higher-education community and among private funders that we needed to do more to promote academic collaboration and links between the two countries.”

Funding for the scheme, to be managed by the British Council, is primarily from the Pears Foundation, with £500,000 for the first five years, and UJIA contributing £200,000 for the same period. The government’s contribution of £20,000 has been matched by Israel’s Ministry of Science.

Asked why the government’s contribution was so small, a spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said: “This was a one-off payment to seed the project with the majority coming from private sources. That was always the way the scheme would be funded. It signalled our commitment to the programme.”

Additionally, Britain and Israel will sign a film co-operation and production treaty later this year. The agreement will enable UK and Israeli filmmakers to co-produce films that will be eligible for national status in both countries.

Israel has so far signed co-production deals with France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Australia, Canada and Sweden. These have resulted in many productions which were commercially successful.

Last updated: 12:53pm, July 24 2008