The academic year in tertiary education gets underway next week in Israel. The
universities and the colleges will get back to teaching, tens of thousands of
new students will enter the portals of institutes of higher education for the
first time, and the campuses will come to life again.
reputation is world-class. But all is not well in the kingdom of higher
education in Israel. Despite the obvious success stories, there is a growing
feeling of despair among many in the country’s academic community at the way
that universities are managed and controlled.
Universities have become
corporate concerns, to be managed and funded according to efficiency, relevance
and profits, and are increasingly judged by those who hold the purse strings
according to criteria which may be appropriate for the world of industry and
private business, but not for public educational institutes.
government funds universities according to a set of economic criteria, known as
the VATAT model, that are highly detailed and intricate and were devised by
accountants and economists. While its avowed purpose is to make the universities
more efficient (not a bad thing in principle), and increase the scientific
competitiveness of Israeli institutes within a global scientific community, it
has failed to deliver the goods.
Competition between institutes has
become competition for the sake of competition, rather than competition for the
sake of excellence – a word which is bandied around in any public debate
concerning higher education to such an extent that it has become a meaningless
Competition for the sake of competition has filtered down to the
universities themselves, so that the same level of infighting over the
allocation of scarce resources now takes pride of place within each of the
institutes as academic staff play a subservient role to the university
administrators, accountants and technical staff who are increasingly making the
key decisions concerning future development and policy.
The key academic
staff – including deans – have become little more than the agents of
implementation for decisions which are taken by those who are meant to serve the
interests of academic achievement and scientific advancement.
universities, competition between the hard sciences and the humanities has
intensified, as each has to justify its existence rather than cohabit within a
pluralistic scientific environment. The tensions between the various scientific
communities is a global, not just an Israeli problem, but this has intensified
within Israel’s universities as a result of the cutthroat competition for a
decreasing amount of public resources and the way in which the VATAT model has
promoted competition based on managerial criteria.
They tell us that the
universities should focus on research, allowing the new regional colleges to
take on the bulk of the undergraduate teaching, but continue to fund us
according to the number of students.
Thus the pressure on the departments
is to increase their intake and increase the number of students per teacher,
rather than allowing the best scholars to really focus on their
They tell us that we should take on the best research students,
but fund us according to the number of PhD students rather than their quality.
There are far too many PhD students in Israel’s universities today, each of whom
receives stipends which are far too small to really enable them to devote their
energies to full-time research.
They tell us we should publish in the
best international scientific journals, but ignore the fact that Humanities
scholars write books, rather than journal papers, and that this is what gives
them international recognition. If you aren’t part of a politically constructed
scientific index or international ranking system, your monetary value is
worthless, regardless of whether you are a leading philosopher or world
The university rectors and presidents should be lobbying to
change the system, but they tend to look after their own institutional interests
rather than act as a national lobby. The VATAT model encourages a
divide-and-rule system among the country’s universities, and has thus far
prevented the heads of the country’s universities acting as a collective unit.
More often than not those who rise to the top of the academic administrative
system are not necessarily the best researchers or world scholars, but those who
have opted for a career as academic administrators.
The change in the
administrative and power structures which has taken place at Israel’s
universities during the past decade has considerably reduced the power of the
academic and research staff – including that of the rector who is meant to be
the highest academic authority – in favor of the administrative and technical
staff who take their lead from the university president and the university
The latter is invariably a good manager, understands accounting and
economics, but rarely has a true understanding of what a university is and how
its objectives should be met.
Every year, there will be at least one or
two of Israel’s universities that elect, or re-elect, a new president or rector.
At Ben-Gurion University, both of these key positions will become vacant during
the coming year, but it is almost a foregone conclusion that the two incumbents
will continue in their positions for yet another term of office – the rector for
a second term, the president for a third term. Continuity, they tell us, is good
for stability – but when you have a system which doesn’t function properly and
is never subject to real, external, independent scrutiny, continuity becomes
just another name for the perpetuation of the existing system.
new system of university administration, it is rare for the academics to have
any real say in the selection of a new president – they are appointed to the
“search” committees as a form of decoration, rather than as people whose voices
have any major significance.
Incumbents only have to ensure that the
non-academics on the executive committee and the board of governors are
satisfied with their administration and their PR image – it doesn’t really
matter what the academic community thinks.
But a healthy dose of
self-criticism is also in order. The change in the university power system came
about in no small part as a governmental response to the fact that the academic
community did not get itself under control and institute the necessary changes
when it was necessary to do so.
While the majority of academic staff
invest their energies in teaching and research way above and beyond the limits
of a normal working week, there are always some that abuse their
There are those who undertake a minimum of teaching duties and
do not engage in any significant research, and there are those who refuse to
understand that, at the end of the day, publicly funded institutions are
accountable to those who provide the funding.
The system requires
significant structural change. Decision making should be returned to the
scientists themselves and taken out of the hands of the
Two term limits should be imposed on all senior
positions, including presidents and rectors – universities must not be allowed
to become the private playtoys of individuals who have reached positions of
power but fail to steer their institutions on a real path of development and
But equally, the scientific community must behave responsibly
and not abuse its position. Those who fail to do so should make way for the many
young and talented scholars who are lining up to find jobs – in a situation
where the demand far outstrips the supply for permanent academic
And the idea of tenure for that small proportion of academics
who sit back and do nothing for 30 years may need to be reconsidered.
Israel’s universities are to maintain their position among the top 10 scientific
communities in the world, the system requires a radical restructuring.
Universities cannot continue to operate in the free-for-all atmosphere and with
the almost limitless resources of 30 and 40 years ago, but neither can they
adopt managerial solutions which transform them from institutes of research and
higher education into unsuccessful models of corporate management.
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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