Why so few universities in Israel?
Israeli higher education has become ossified over the past 40 years with its out-of-date views of what it means to be a university.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.
Students at lecture at an Israeli university Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski
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
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university for nearly 40 years because it has an outdated model of what a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
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
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
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.
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
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.