Student cartoon 521 (Do not use).
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
No one seriously disputes that over the past 10 to 15 years the seven major
research universities in Israel have gone through a period of significant
contraction, to the point of threatening long-term deterioration to the national
research infrastructure unless the trend can be reversed. It is commonplace to
hear both academics and politicians bemoan what has come to be called the “lost
decade” in the country's higher education.
As a result of a series of
across-the-board cuts in government ministry budgets, an accumulated 25 percent
reduction in state support for research university budgets took place between
the years 2001 to 2007. Simultaneously, in response to public pressure,
government-mandated tuition fees dropped by 26 percent in real terms, further
cutting deeply into university budgets at a time when they were struggling to
meet pension obligations to a large cohort of retiring employees hired during
the growth spurt in the 1960s and early 1970s.
themselves with no choice but to implement staff reductions that negatively
affected the quality of both research and teaching. Tel Aviv University, to take
just one example, reduced its number of faculty positions by about 400 over the
past decade, even as student enrollment increased.
In response to this
dismal state of affairs, the Council for Higher Education (CHE), the national
supervisory and accreditation body for universities and colleges, in 2010
composed a six-year plan to correct the deleterious effects of the lost decade.
The plan calls for determining funding of academic units based on proven
excellence, the addition of 2,000 new faculty members nationwide, a doubling of
the funding made available by the Israel Science Foundation from 270 million
shekels to 520 million shekels annually, and establishing 30 new centers of
excellence. Each such center of excellence will focus on a particular academic
subject, while attracting back top Israeli academic talents who have left the
country, increased investment in university infrastructures, and increased
quality control over teaching.
The government accepted the CHE’s proposed
six-year plan. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, himself a former university
professor, promised to fund the recovery and expansion plan to the tune of an
extra 2.5 billion shekels over six years, over and above the existing 6.9
billion-shekel annual state funding of higher education.
Volansky, a professor at Tel Aviv University’s School of Education, however, is
concerned that while the CHE’s six-year plan will shore up the country’s
research universities, it does not sufficiently address a need for expanding
higher education accessibility for large segments of the population who hitherto
have been shut out of the opportunity to go to college.
“There was a long
period of time during which the higher education system widely opened its doors.
This was a ray of light during the dark period of large budget cuts,” Volansky
tells The Jerusalem Report. “The six-year plan places great weight on correcting
the worst aspects of the lost decade, and rightfully so. But it limits the
growth of accessibility to higher education to such an extent that it amounts to
Volansky spells out in great detail both his analysis of the
effects of the lost decade and his suggestions for continued expansion of higher
education accessibility in a discussion paper recently published by the Taub
Center for Social Policy Studies, titled, After the ‘Lost Decade’ – Where is
Higher Education in Israel Headed?
Volansky’s discussion paper opens with a
sweeping review of positive developments in Israeli higher education, which has
experienced two decades of uninterrupted growth. He identifies the major turning
point in a series of government decisions in 1993 and 1994 that permitted
colleges to grant academic degrees (at least at the bachelor’s
Prior to that, higher education had been available only at one of
the seven research universities (or the Open University, which pioneered
distance learning techniques).
Following the major growth spurt of the
’60s and early ’70s, no new universities were established. At the same time,
Israeli society and the economy were undergoing changes placing an ever
increasing premium on advanced degrees. The result was a growing sense of
frustration throughout the 1980s among those who were denied the opportunity to
obtain a university degree.
The decision to allow colleges to open up
alongside the “elite” universities released a long-suppressed wave of energy, in
response to a rapidly escalating demand for degrees among the general Israeli
populace. The huge influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the
early 1990s aso created a large pool of both new students and teachers, adding
to demand. As a result, no fewer than 43 new institutions of higher learning
were either established as or upgraded to degree-granting colleges over the past
Although the system that was originally envisioned was a
“binary system” – in which colleges focus on education and vocational training
while research is carried out at universities – in recent years some of the more
prestigious colleges have requested and received permission to open programs
awarding master's degrees in addition to bachelor's degrees.
increasing number of college faculty members who are engaged in research as well
as teaching has also further eroded the original sharp distinction between
colleges and universities.
The number of students enrolled in higher
education more than doubled, from 118,000 in 1993 to 290,000 in 2009.
2008 fully 45.8 percent of college-aged Israelis were enrolled in higher
education, compared to just 21 percent in 1990 – a leap from one in five to
nearly one in two. Just as importantly, the perception of higher education
changed from being the preserve of society's elite to an equal-opportunity goal
necessary for advancement.
“Counting colleges as well as universities,
higher education accessibility grew at a rate of 8 percent a year over the last
20 years,” notes Volansky. For individuals, having or lacking a degree can
translate into a big difference in salary; Israelis with 16 years of education
earn on average 11,600 shekels per month as opposed to 6,000 shekels for those
with 12 years or less of education.
The importance of higher education in
contemporary Israel is undeniable. In research, Israel is ranked third in the
world in per capita scientific publications. The Hebrew University, Tel Aviv
University and the Technion are routinely ranked among the world's top 100
institutions of higher education in the sciences. Over the past decade, five
Israelis have been awarded Nobel Prizes and one, Elon Lindenstrauss, won a
Fields Medal, the top prize in mathematics that is regarded as the equivalent of
a Nobel Prize.
According to some estimates, 41 percent of the country’s
GDP growth is due to advances in research and development, and 29 percent to
increased higher education in the general population. Fully 70 percent of
patents registered to Israelis had their roots in university
These positive developments, however, cannot paper over the
overall erosion of the lost decade, which Volansky says casts a shadow “so heavy
that it threatens to push the entire system backwards.”
To some extent,
nearly an entire generation of Israeli academic researchers found themselves
unable to obtain permanent positions in universities, and were forced to choose
between leaving the country or toiling at low-paying temporary teaching jobs. The resulting “brain drain” was severe enough to lead leading academics to warn
that unless the tide was stemmed, the current cohort of Israeli Nobel Prize
winners would be the last.
The average age of a university faculty member
in Israel leapt from 46 in 1980 to 53.5 in 2009, reflecting a long-term hiring
freeze. The student to faculty ratio, which stood at 17 to 1 in 1990, ballooned
to 24 to 1 by 2009, in comparison with the ratio of 10 to 1 or less that is
considered standard internationally for top quality universities.
the CHE’s six-year plan is fully implemented successfully, it is only expected
to reduce the student to faculty ratio to 21.5 to 1.
Demand for college
enrollment does not appear to be abating. Two years ago, the CHE reported no
less than 450 outstanding requests for approval for new degree-granting
educational tracks at colleges. Some of those programs had been languishing on
the waiting list for five years or more. The CHE’s six-year plan, however, is
heavily focused on the research universities, as opposed to the colleges, and it
plans for an overall 2-percent increase in the nationwide student population,
approximately proportional to general population growth.
It is against
this background that Volansky calls for a rethink of the current
university/college system, and the consideration of adding a third layer to
offer the equivalent of the associate degree in the United States or the
foundation degree in the United Kingdom. Such a degree is less than a
full-fledged academic degree such as the bachelor’s degree, but ranks higher
than a high-school diploma and can be obtained with two years or less of
“There has been a change in the public perception of higher
education that should not be ignored,” says Volansky, who holds a PhD in
education from the University of Oxford. “This is akin to a fired arrow that
cannot be returned.”
Volansky advocates introducing a three-tiered system
of universities, colleges and community colleges along the lines of the highly
successful California higher education system.
“This would be a way to
support the research university without limiting accessibility to higher
education frameworks,” explains Volanksy.
“People who have obtained an
associate degree could then choose to build on the credits they had accumulated
in two-year colleges to transfer to BA-granting institutions for a full academic
degree, or to seek jobs using their associate degree.”
But will there be
a demand for a degree below the bachelor’s degree in the employment market?
Volansky responds with an emphatic yes. He points out that many in the Arab and haredi sectors of the Israeli population, which comprise the majority of those
mired in poverty, are increasingly looking for ways to obtain skilled
“Surveys in both the United States and the United Kingdom
show that there are many employers who are seeking workers with associate
degrees, and projections indicate increased demand for such employees in coming
years,” says Volansky. “This is true in many industries, including information
and data-heavy industries.
There are plenty of systems operations jobs
that do not require a full engineering degree, but do require the amount of
post-secondary education that one gets in studying for an associate
In fact, he says, a recent OECD report recommended introducing
precisely a level of higher education equivalent to an associate degree to the
Arab sector in the Galilee, to boost employment.
“The associate degree
has proven its worth in many places,” concludes Volansky. “In Israel the lack of
an associate degree has left a vacuum.”