Why are there so few universities in Israel – just seven, plus the Weizmann Institute, which is really a research organization. More remarkably, the most recently established university, The Open University, is only a little less than 40 years old. In that time, Israel’s population has more than doubled, and its economy has grown more than sixfold, but no more universities have been set up. Why?

This was one of the arguments used by the supporters of the proposal to convert Ariel University College into a fully accredited university which is now awaiting a decision by the Supreme Court. The Ariel proposal involves political as well as educational issues, and the question of whether Israel should have more universities will be lost in the arguments which will follow the Supreme Court decision, whichever side it comes down on.

Israel has had no new university for nearly 40 years because it has an outdated model of what a university is. In the Israeli version, every university must be fully engaged in research, aspiring to international standards, and must be funded for such work.

While funding covers laboratories and materials, the most expensive recurrent cost is academic staff. If faculty members are expected to spend half their time on research, then for any given number of students, you need twice the number of faculty in a university, as compared to a college, where research is not funded. Converting a college to a university could mean doubling faculty costs.

With this policy, it is too expensive for the government to create new universities. So it has met the demand created by growing populations and increased bagrut (high school matriculation) results by creating and fostering academic colleges all over the country, including the territories. These colleges have raised their standards over the years, and have been authorized to provide masters as well as bachelors degrees.

Their faculties are well qualified, many with doctorates and in some cases on par with their colleagues in universities. The natural progress and ambition of these colleges lead some of them, and not just Ariel, to want to become universities. But the government is resistant, because it can’t afford the change.

There is another way, and it is to follow the path which exists in the US and Britain. In the US, no one, government, academics, students or the general population, has any hang-up about the university title. It is possible to have different types of university existing side by side. In California, a prestigious private university, Stanford, exists close to a prestigious public university, California, with its 10 campuses, and a less prestigious but still respected state university, California State University. There are many high-reputation liberal arts universities which focus on teaching rather than research.

IN BRITAIN, the decision was taken, 20 years ago, that the country’s 30 polytechnics had achieved sufficient maturity and recognized academic standards to warrant the university title. In a mass baptism their names and status were changed overnight, and they have gone from strength to strength. While their names and status were changed, their funding was not. They receive some small additional research funds to help develop promising researchers, but if they want significant research funds they have to compete on their record with the older universities.

This funding is provided on merit and not because of the university title. In California the state university does not expect to receive research funds comparable with Berkeley or Stanford.

This is the way forward for Israeli higher education. Divorce the university title from the expectation of research funds. There are many academic colleges which have the teaching record at both undergraduate and graduate level to merit the university title. The existing universities should be designated “National Universities” and a new grouping of “Regional Universities” should be established from the best of the academic colleges. It should not be difficult to agree the appropriate criteria and a panel of the Council for Higher Education could assess claims and make recommendations.

The new regional universities would not necessarily receive additional funding, but they might receive small amounts of “pump priming” funding to develop research in specific areas of strength. In time this might enable some of them to compete legitimately with the national universities for research funds. Eventually a regional university might be strong enough to claim national university status.

In a co-operative higher education system regional universities might have links with the national universities, enabling their brightest researchers to be part of national research teams. This would not only be good for the researchers themselves but would also improve the quality of research.

Israeli higher education has become ossified over the past 40 years with its out-of-date views of what it means to be a university. It is time to move on, for the benefit of all.

The author was the vice chancellor of two universities in Britain, chancellor of the University of Derby and a higher education adviser to the UK government.

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