For the first time in Israel’s history there will be a decrease of students studying at higher education institutions, Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, head of the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education, said on Monday.

Speaking at the Higher Education Conference in Ramat Gan, Trajtenberg presented the findings of an annual report on the 2014 “Challenges of the Higher Education System,” released by the committee.

According to the Trajtenberg, the next five years will reflect a decrease of some 50,000 Jewish (non-Orthodox) students, aged 20 to 30, pursuing academic degrees – what he dubbed as a “demographic overturn.”

Despite this decrease, however, higher education institutions are projected to see a rise in Arab and ultra-Orthodox students, some 74,000 and 40,000, respectively.

In the 2013/14 academic year 308,335 students were pursuing higher education degrees at 66 academic institutions, including seven universities, 37 academic colleges and 21 education colleges.

According to Trajtenberg, of the 37 academic colleges, one recently collapsed financially and three additional colleges were experiencing difficulties.

In addition, 11 of the colleges enroll under 2,000 students and 11 enroll under 3,000 students, far from reaching a critical mass.

As a result of the demographic overturn and the vast number of academic colleges that were established in the past few years, Trajtenberg said unequivocally that there would be “no room in the coming years to establish new higher education institutions.”

Instead, Trajtenberg called on existing academic colleges to merge and “cooperate rather than compete with one another,” because otherwise, he said, “many will not survive.”

In his opening remarks, Trajtenberg said that the committee had accomplished two-thirds of the goals set out in its NIS 9 billion multiyear reform plan, which called to promote academic excellence and make higher education available to the Arab and ultra-Orthodox sectors.

The plan called for the establishment of some 30 Israeli Centers for Research Excellence (I-CORE), though to date only 16 centers were established.

In addition, the plan called for the absorption of new academic faculty to counter the “brain drain” and increase the student-to-faculty ratio at Israeli universities to 1 to 21 – comparable to top institutions abroad.

While universities were able to absorb some 1,040 new faculty at a onetime cost of some NIS 1 million per person, they failed to anticipate the some 840 faculty members who retired or relocated abroad – resulting in an increase of only 200, not enough to achieve the desired ratio.

With regard to the Arab and ultra-Orthodox sectors, Trajtenberg called on institutions to “open their gates” to these minorities and said there were tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox students eligible to study at higher education institutions – “a great opportunity,” he said.

Trajtenberg also highlighted some of the higher education accomplishments in the past year, namely, increased international cooperation with China and India; joining Horizon 2020; becoming a full partner at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research; as well as establishing new student dormitories and new infrastructures.

Education Minister Shai Piron also addressed the conference, saying he was worried about the quality and future of education in Israel.

Piron emphasized the importance of a pedagogic continuity from preschool to higher education and called on the higher education institutions to work together with the school system to achieve this goal.

“We cannot improve the situation unless we form a deep alliance between the education system and higher education that will create a pedagogical continuity,” Piron said. “Where there is cooperation, there are miracles.”

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