(photo credit: )
In one of the ironies of life that has become so commonplace in Israel, the 11th Council for Higher Education was inaugurated Tuesday at Beit Hanassi, on a day on which teachers were striking and students were protesting the exorbitant cost of university fees.
The 23-member council includes eight women, two Arabs and two representatives of the National Students Union.
The common theme of the speeches at the inaugeration was the danger facing the quality of higher education in Israel, unless the Finance Ministry revokes cutbacks introduced in recent years and restores funding to institutions of higher learning to its previous levels.
In a reference to changing social values and concepts, Education Minister Professor Yuli Tamir, who by virtue of her post is the chairperson of the Council, said that "higher education today is not what it was 10 years ago."
"A small country like Israel has to ask itself what it wants to achieve through higher education," she said. "Once upon a time, people went to university to become enlightened and to acquire knowledge," she observed. "Now, people go to university to get the qualifications for a good job, so that they can earn a lot of money."
Contrary to popular wisdom, Tamir does not believe that higher education has been instrumental in closing socio-economic gaps in Israel. People from the weaker sectors of society do not usually get to university, she noted, adding that a way must be found to raise people out of weak socioeconomic environments and "bring them to the gates of the university."
She also reminded her audience that good education does not begin at the university level, but in kindergarten - and kindergartens, like universities, do not have adequate resources.
Tamir, who is interested in creating a good educational balance between knowledge, professionalism and quality, was concerned that too many people who actually make it to university with their high school matriculation certificates as a passport, are not properly prepared for university life.
She was adamant that there must be additional funding for education. "There is no justification for cutting the education budget," she said.
Professor Shlomo Grossman, chairman of the Council's Planning and Budgets Committee, said that Israel's international reputation for impressive achievements in scientific and technological research, was the outcome of the state's investment in academic infrastructure. "The reduced budgets that we've had since the year 2000 make it difficult to continue with these achievements," he said, expressing the wish that the government not only restore the resources that it had taken away, but would also provide additional resources, "so that students can acquire quality educations and aspire to excellence."
Acting President of the State Dalia Itzik, who was a teacher before she went into politics, said that she always had a soft spot for education and that early in her political career, when she was deputy mayor of Jerusalem, she was responsible for the city's education portfolio.
Successive governments of Israel put education at the top of the agenda, but not at the top of the budget, she said.
Education, for those who can get it, paves the way to improving one's life, she said, and stressed that she would not want anyone to miss out on education, simply because they could not afford to pay for it.
Itzik also said that she was bothered by the Israeli braindrain, primarily among young academics who have found it more rewarding to engage in research in the United States. Itzik attributed the academic exodus to "drastic budgetary cuts" in higher education.
Professor Yechezkiel Teller, who has been a member of the Council for 15 years, and has spent the past five years as its vice chairman, highlighted the rapid growth in institutions of higher learning and the number of students studying in these institutions. In 1990, he said there were only 21 institutions of higher learning with a total of 66,000 students, while today there are 63 institutions of higher learning with a total student enrollment of slightly less than 250,000.
Teller emphasized that many of the newer institutions of higher learning were established in peripheral communities, enabling people who might otherwise have never gone to college or university to acquire a higher education.
He regretted, however, that people were generally not studying simply for the sake of gaining knowledge. Most students opted for courses that would enable them to quickly integrate into the job market. As a result, fewer and fewer people were taking courses in the humanities. This is a situation that needs to be remedied, he said.