Some 308,335 students will begin the 2013-2014 academic year on Sunday in 66 institutions of higher education.

That includes the seven research universities, the Open University, 37 academic colleges and 21 colleges of education.

An estimated 236,770 of the students will be studying for bachelor’s degrees, 192,770 of them in academic colleges and universities: 66% in colleges, and 34% at universities’ main campuses, the Education Ministry said.

In addition, 59,700 students will be studying for master’s degrees, an increase of 3.1% compared to last year.

The 2013-2014 academic year’s budget will be NIS 8.9 billion, NIS 40 million of which will be used to make facilities accessible to people with physical and sensory disabilities, the ministry said.

The higher education system has undergone “dramatic changes” in the past two decades, according to a report recently released by the Council for Higher Education.

In the 1990s, it was characterized by rapid growth and strong demand for academic studies with an increase in the number of undergraduate students of 8.7% a year. The following decade, however, saw a significant slowdown in the growth rate of the student population, which went down to about 3.5% a year. The downturn, according to the CHE, was due to severe budget cuts.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of the present decade, higher education was placed among the top national priorities, which has seen strong demand for undergraduate studies, especially in academic colleges, the council said.

During a visit to the Hebrew University of Jerusalem last week, Education Minister Shai Piron wished students and faculty a year of “learning, education and success,” and called for a “general mobilization” in the field of education.

“First of all, we must strengthen the connection and integration between the systems of education and higher education in Israel,” he said.

“Only thus can we effectively train university graduates capable of competing at the global level.

“Education should be the most important issue on our agenda. Israeli society made education a national priority, and we are committed to this,” Piron said. “Every young person in Israel deserves the opportunity to develop himself.”

During the tour, the minister expressed his goals for the new academic year, which include deepening the connection between society’s needs and the higher education system; broadening the humanities curriculum; encouraging the best young students to choose the teaching profession; creating a continuum between the education system and higher education; and expanding access for the haredi population and minorities.

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