Professor Manuel Trajtenberg announced last week that he would be stepping down earlier than expected as the head of the Council of Higher Education, the semi-autonomous body which determines the development policy of the country’s institutes of higher education. The council is responsible for the country’s seven universities and tens of colleges (which in recent years have been granted degree status), all of which compete with each other for students to fill the lecture halls and classrooms.

Just a day after his announcement, the annual Shanghai world university rankings were published. The results showed that only two Israeli universities, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Israel Institute of Technology-Technion, were in the world’s top 100, while all seven had achieved a significantly lower ranking than in previous years, with the University of Haifa slipping off the scale altogether.

Like all rankings of this type, it has its critics.

Are the criterion used (such as number of Nobel prize winners, number of articles published in the top international journals, per capita performance – whatever that means – of the universities) the correct ones? And who has the power to determine these criterion? Is it not a case of the strong and the renowned determining the criteria which will perpetuate the existing rankings? And can we rank universities with such a mechanical system, without giving any value to the humanities and the value of ideas and philosophy and ethics which are almost impossible to rank and, as such, no longer play any major role in this annual exercise? The low rankings in any case do not mean that Israel’s universities are not of the highest quality. Per capita, Israel has a relatively large number of prestigious researchers and departments, competes successfully for international research funding, and is much sought after as a partner for international collaborative research projects by scientists at those universities (mostly in the United States and Western Europe but increasingly Asia where governments such as China, South Korea and Japan have invested huge amounts of resources into expanding their university capabilities) who are, year after year, to be found at the very top of the scale – such as Harvard, Berkeley, Princeton, Cambridge and Oxford – the elite of the international academic hierarchy.

Success breeds success and the top universities will continually snap up the best young talent to emerge from other universities and they, in turn, will be only too happy to be appointed to tenure-track positions at the Ivy League (North America) and Russel Group (UK) top institutions.

The heads of Israel’s universities will be scratching their heads at the decline in the country’s rankings, if only because during the past five years, under Trajtenberg’s leadership, a great deal of effort has been put into creating a similar system of internal research rankings, based around what has become known as the VATAT model, to ensure that Israel’s universities strengthen their research profile and remain, perhaps regain, their status as world leaders in scientific development.

And although there will be those who will point to the boycott debate as a reason for Israel’s decline in the rankings, this is nothing more than a meek excuse given the fact that the boycott remains 98 percent hot air and hardly any significant action – although we cannot deny that there are an increasing number of academics who do not want to work with their Israeli counterparts and who refuse to take part in scientific conferences which take place in Israel.

This is expected to increase after Operation Defensive Edge in the Gaza Strip and we are already witnessing a renewed debate among many of our academic colleagues abroad.

But we should not use this as an excuse to believe that this has any impact on the Shanghai rankings. The top universities and scholars, none of whom waste their time in boycott-related debates, seek out their Israeli partners as participants in international collaborative projects, while most of those engage in the political activism of boycotts are to be found in those universities and institutions which are low in the rankings, or don’t appear there at all. There is a high correlation between medium to weak scientific achievement and political activism.

The VATAT model, determining the way in which Israel’s universities are funded, has trickled down within the universities themselves, all of which have adopted internal procedures aimed at maximizing their impact. The model has four key components: 1. The number of undergraduate students.

2. The number of papers published in top scientific journal.

3. The number of doctoral students who complete their thesis within a four-year period.

4. The number of successful applications to major competitive grant-awarding authorities.

The internal specifications are modified every five years, but the overall structure remains the same. With the exception of the first category, the model focuses on the research profile of the universities, ranking them in such a way that the top two in each category receive a 20% funding bonus.

Many of Israel’s academic faculty, especially in the humanities, argue that the rigid application of this model by Trajtenberg and his own group of in-house economists, has transformed the country’s universities into factories, where the manufactured product, knowledge, has become measured in quantity rather than in quality. There is growing criticism of the way in which the model has been constructed by a relatively small group of people, as well as the lack of public transparency concerning the way in which some of the rankings have been determined by those who most benefit from them.

Attempting to gain this information on the part of the universities has become almost tantamount to industrial espionage, thus strengthening the feeling among many academics that this is more about power politics between institutions, each determined to gain access to as much public funding as possible, rather than the collective good of Israeli science. This internal competition, and the lack of collective bargaining on the part of Israel’s university presidents and rectors, all of whom strive to get the “best” deal, in a self-imposed system of divide and rule which Trajtenberg has done his best to nurture, is damaging to the national development of science.

Competition over research excellence is not a bad thing when it serves a common purpose – the strengthening of Israeli research vis a vis the world, but when the objective is to fight it out over the allocation of a limited, declining pool of public resources, it only serves to weaken all the universities at one and the same time.

There is also an inbuilt structural contradiction in the model itself. It is intended to reward research achievements but still allocates the major part of the budget based on the number of students enrolled. At the same time, the Malag under Trajtenberg has approved the expansion of undergraduate, and more recently advanced degrees and training programs to an increasing number of colleges who now compete – often with lower entrance standards and more generous stipends – for the same finite student population.

If the universities are to be distinguished from the colleges by their research profile, and if Malag is interested that our universities move up in the international rankings rather than fall behind, then Trajtenberg’s successor will have his (or her) work cut out to rethink the model in such a way that Israel will regain its competitive edge within the global world of research and scientific advancement.

The writer is dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.

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