A senior staff strike at 17 colleges didn’t stop 309,871 students from returning to the country’s 62 institutions of higher education on Sunday.
College senior staff, the Planning and Budgeting Committee and the Finance Ministry are in the middle of an ongoing salary dispute, making this the largest faculty strike since 2007. Students from the 17 colleges attended classes and were taught by junior lecturers.
Chairman of the National Student Union Ram Shefa said that in recent years there has not been a single semester that has started without a threat of a sanction or strike from the staff.
“The method by which negotiations are dragged on for months until the first day of classes in order to use students as bargaining chips has long since grown tiresome,” he said.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett addressed the issue at the cabinet meeting, saying that he is dealing with the strike and that he is “convinced that we will reach a solution.”
However, Bennett also touted his success in reversing the trend of too many lawyers and not enough engineers in the country.
“Today I can report that for the first time we have drastically reduced from 16,000 to 13,000 over the past two and a half years, while dramatically increasing the number of engineering students and hi-tech professionals from 24,000 to 29,000,” he said. “I call upon young Israelis to choose promising professions in not only in hi-tech, but also in the humanities. We need to strengthen this area as well.”
He urged Israel’s youth to reconsider a career in law and help fix the country’s shortage of engineers.
“We have a huge surplus in the legal profession in Israel, the highest ratio in the world,” he said. “There is one attorney for every 150 people and we have a huge shortage of engineers.
Yet for years, the higher education system continued to issue and train far too many lawyers.”
The Center for Higher Education reported that 232,700 students are enrolled in undergraduate programs, 64,615 masters’ students and 11,015 doctoral candidates.
In honor of the first day of classes, President Reuven Rivlin visited Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba.
“In recent decades, Israeli society has undergone radical changes. The four central social groups – secular, haredi (ultra-Orthodox), religious and Arab – are approaching the same size in population but are pulling away from each other in terms of worldviews,” the president told students and faculty members on Sunday.
“Our split education system where each group studies separately only increases the distance between them. The University is where the essential connections between the groups will be formed. We will be unable to preserve the State of Israel’s prosperity, to protect it, to compete in world markets, if its future generations, you, do not know how to study together, work together and lead together.
“There are those who treat academia as an ivory tower, as a group of snobs. This is stupid and belittling. Academics are construction workers, builders – academics at BGU are also pioneers. You are developing the future of the State of Israel, you are building it,” he said. “A strong academia is the oxygen of the State of Israel and the lifeline of the Negev, and we are obliged to enable it to flourish.”
Some 7,000 students began their studies at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, 2,000 of which will be studying in English at the Raphael Recanati International School. In addition, about 900 students will join the international school from 86 countries.
The IDC Herzliya is also launching an undergraduate dual-degree program in entrepreneurship with a computer science or business administration degree.
Bar-Ilan University announced that this year’s most sought-after departments are: Computer Science, Law, Economics, Engineering, Management and Logistics and Life Sciences.
In addition, the university announced the addition of 35 Chinese students to its campus.
“All the major universities in the world are courting these students, we have no reason not to be part of this trend. We must make the university accessible to them, in both research and teaching,” said Dr. Danielle Gurevitch, director and initiator of the Asia Division at Bar-Ilan University.
Despite a decrease in overall enrollment, Hebrew University of Jerusalem announced that 23,000 students are headed back to school Sunday.
The university said it is offering students some 900 new courses. Among them, the school of Occupational Therapy is offering a “Neuro-Therapy: Using video games and computerized technology for rehabilitation” class, while the Department of International Relations is teaching a “Footsteps of friction in Israeli society” course, and the Political Science department a “politics of populism” class.
The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa is boasting an all-time high in female undergraduate enrollment of 40%. The Technion announced 2,000 new students are enrolled and that their most sought-after courses are medicine, electrical engineering, computer science, civil engineering and mechanical engineering.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also addressed the start of the academic year at the weekly cabinet meeting, taking credit for having rescued the country’s higher education from “atrophy.”
The government, Netanyahu said, is “investing many billions of shekels” in higher education in the recognition that it is one of Israel’s “cornerstones.”
“I remind you about the lost decade of higher education in Israel – it was only a few years ago,” he said. “Simply put, the institutions had started to fray… They had difficulties not only with the physical base, but with basic budgets that were designed to maintain and build higher education in Israel and cause it to flourish, but which atrophied. And so we made a major change of direction, already in previous governments, but we are continuing with this momentum, based on the understanding that this is a primary tool in advancing the State of Israel and Israeli society.”
However, skepticism prevails at the National Student Union: “The system is in a state of stagnation, and it must undergo a comprehensive examination, otherwise the decline in student satisfaction with the quality of academic teaching will continue. Academic studies in the 21st century can not be the same as those that existed decades ago,” said chairman Shefa.
“There are some advancements being made, but as long as there is not a significant paradigm shift, a meaningful investment in teaching and revising teaching methods, satisfaction will remain on the decline,” he said. “The relation between one’s degree and their place in the job market must also be more substantial, otherwise we will see more and more young people in Israel who will give up on higher education.”Herb Keinon contributed to this report.