Budget cutbacks in higher education have led to a severe brain drain in Israeli academia, according to figures presented to the Knesset Education Committee on Monday.
With cuts reaching some NIS 1.2 billion over the past five years, Israel's universities have been forced to cut their teaching staff by 22 percent, university presidents complained to the committee.
Over the past five years, universities have hired an average of one academic researcher or lecturer for every two who retired, according to Professor Moshe Kaveh, president of Bar-Ilan University and head of the Council of Israeli University Presidents.
Whereas the 5762 academic year (2001-2002) saw 270 new academic staff hired by Israeli universities, 5765 (2004-2005) saw only 164.
For aspiring academics, this drop is disastrous, particularly since the loss of 40% of the available academic positions accompanied a rise of 25% in the number of doctorates given by Israel's universities. For a PhD recipient, this meant that the 34% chance of being accepted to a teaching position in Israel's universities in 2002 had dropped to 16% by 2005. Though official figures are not yet known, the factors that led to this drop are all still in effect, so it is extremely likely that the 5767 school year will see much of the same.
It is therefore not surprising that many Israelis who earn their doctorates in the United States choose to stay there. The percentage of those who do so is rising, passing the 60% mark in the past couple of years.
For Professor Eshel Ben-Yaakov, representing the academic senates of the universities at the Knesset Education Committee meeting, the numbers tell a grim tale.
"Israeli higher education has already collapsed," he told the MKs at Monday's meeting. "You don't feel it yet only because of the personal dedication of the students, of the junior lecturers, who unlike in any other country, will live off minuscule salaries in order to teach in their homeland. This commitment creates an illusion that the system is before collapse."
Kaveh shared Ben-Yaakov's sentiments. "The higher education system is in a state of catastrophic collapse," he told the MKs at Monday's meeting, adding that it seemed as though "higher education doesn't interest Israeli governments."
Kaveh called on the government to declare that it would work to return 100 scientists each year to the country. While each scientist could cost as much as $1 million per year, since luring scientists includes building an appropriate laboratory, this would help to counteract the trend, Kaveh concluded.
Professor Hillel Bercovier, vice president for research and development of the Hebrew University, noted before the committee that the problem was "not just that the statistics don't look good, but that the State of Israel has fallen asleep. In the whole world, governments are organizing to battle the brain drain [to the United States], while in the United States they invest in the success of our people."
Why would a young researcher give up research opportunities in America that he can't get in Israel, Bercovier asked.
The dire warnings come following vicious wrangling between representatives of the universities and Finance Ministry officials ahead of the opening of the school year over further possible budget cuts.
Only a last-minute NIS 140 million contribution from the Finance Ministry quieted threats from the Council of Israeli University Presidents that they would not open their institutions for the new year. Even so, on the first day of the 5767 academic year, Kaveh, representing the university presidents, warned that the budget shortfall would make it nearly impossible for the universities to open on schedule for second semester this year.
Much of the controversy over the budget has coalesced for the time being around the composition of a special committee that will, according to one treasury official speaking to The Jerusalem Post, determine the fate of higher education for the long term.
The committee, the outcome of intense negotiations between Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson, Education Minister Yuli Tamir and university presidents, was founded to "examine the future of higher education," according to Tamir. Despite the fact that its recommendations for higher education reform must be submitted by January 31st, the committee has yet to be officially appointed, since acrimonious negotiations over its composition have not ended in agreement.
The two sides - the Finance Ministry on one side and Education Ministry and universities on the other - are engaged in an angry media war over the issue of who will serve on the committee.
Finance officials have stated that committee membership candidates Professor Yaakov Zeev, a former president of both the National Academy of the Sciences and the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education, and Professor Menahem Yaari, the current president of the National Academy of the Sciences, are unacceptable for the committee. In response, both university presidents and Tamir herself declared that they would not budge in their demand that the two professors, who would serve as the committee members representing the public, be appointed to the committee.
As one professor complained bitterly before the Knesset committee, "If someone thinks the budgets division in the Finance Ministry cares about how a university should be run, he's wrong."
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