What is the state of higher education in Israel?

“Higher education is a strength of this country but it needs to redefine itself,” says Professor Shlomo Biderman. University classes open today.

Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo (photo credit: Courtesy)
Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As more young adults consider skipping or postponing studying at colleges and universities, higher education continues to evolve with the times and address these challenges, according to Prof. Shlomo Biderman, president of the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo and chairman of VARAM, the Board of Public Academic Colleges in Israel.
Biderman arrived at the college in 2015 after many decades of teaching philosophy at Tel Aviv University.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post in his office ahead of the start of the academic year, with university courses starting today, he suggested that higher education in Israel needs to redefine itself if it wants to stay relevant.
“The new generations do not consider going to university as their default option,” Biderman explained. “Many ask why they should invest three years of their life attending lectures and classes. They know they will not find a job for the rest of their life, that careers change and that maybe they will have time to study later in life, therefore they wonder why not to look for a job in hi-tech in the meantime.”
About 4,000 students are enrolled at the Academic College of Tel Aviv-Yaffo, which offers 10 options for a bachelor’s degree, as well as master’s programs.
“Our mission is to create academic programs at a high level that are also meaningful to the individual student and society,” Biderman said. “We believe that it is possible to push for social change through higher education.”
This relevancy, the professor explained, is embodied in dozens of courses they offer, which aim to combine knowledge with practical experience. For example, their developmental psychology course is taught in a childcare center. In another course, computer science students learn hands-on at a house for young adults with mental or physical disabilities. In the course, the students develop applications that can help to improve the residents’ lives.
“After three years of just sitting in a classroom, the students would probably not even know where to begin, but working together with the people they are trying to help show them their needs and the impact they can have,” Biderman noted, emphasizing that the college is very integrated in the communities of Jaffa and southern Tel Aviv. “We are not here because the land is cheap. We are here because this is where we want to be.”
Public colleges in Israel – which differ from universities because they focus on teaching rather than research – were first established in the 1990s.
Public colleges were also created to open the gates of higher education to communities that had a harder time being accepted to universities, including new immigrants and students from the Arab sector. Today, there are 22 public academic colleges in the country, as well as dozens of private ones.
While educational institutions are at a turning point, higher education has always been one of Israel’s strengths, according to Biderman.
“I hope that the government understands that supporting it is essential for the survival of the country,” he said.
Asked about the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that often targets Israeli academia, Biderman expressed concern.
“Israeli academia generally has a good relationship with international institutions,” he said. “However, there is no doubt that the BDS’ influence is growing. I do not participate in academic conferences as I used to. Still, I hear more and more from my colleagues that they are not invited to events, or they are invited, but they face protests when they speak, or that foreign professors decline invitations to come here. It’s a problem. BDS targets the wrong people and it doesn’t help anybody. It just spoils.”