The teetering ivory tower

The academic year opens next week under a cloud of uncertainty.

By NAOMI CHAZAN
October 19, 2006 11:25
4 minute read.
naomi chazan portrait 88

naomi chazan 88. (photo credit: )

 
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Higher education is the face of Israel's future. In a brain-propelled economy, development prospects are a function of the quality of the country's human resources. In a democracy, the unbridled exchange of ideas is the measure of human vision. In a free society, meritocracy is the key to social justice. Yet Israel's system of higher education, its Nobel-laced pride and joy, is emitting signs of stagnation and, in critical areas, of regression. Without an emergency rescue operation, involving heavy financial investments and a serious substantive revamping, the national prognosis is bleak. The academic year opens next week under a cloud of uncertainty. The total number of students will reach 254,108. Some 200,230 (a bare 1.3 percent more than last year) are undergraduates. The universities, which account for 42% of this figure, are registering a drop of 1.3%; their regional branches are down by 5.8%; teacher-training colleges have lost 2.3% of their student population. Only a rise of 5.8% in those studying in academic colleges (58% of BA students) and an increase of 2.1% at the home-based Open University help keep the numbers somewhat balanced. The most worrisome statistic relates to applications, down by a full 10% in the past two years. The number applying for a master's degree has dropped in every single field except law, paramedicine and social sciences. All told, the actual number of masters students is up by only 1.3% to 42,330. And while there is a rise in doctoral candidates (from 9,835 to 10,200), their distribution is uneven. THERE ARE multiple explanations for this standstill. The budget for higher education has been cut by over NIS 1 billion in the last five years. Even after the decision to return NIS 140 million of the NIS 170m. slashed in 2006, there is still a shortfall of NIS 36m. The 2007 budget calls for a further cut of NIS 36m. There is simply less money for new students and scholarships, let alone for innovative programs or path-breaking research. The economic situation is general is also taking its toll both on the number and the composition of the student body. To be sure, Israel boasts gender equality and more in this area. Women outnumber men at all levels of higher education: they constitute 56% of BA students, 57.3% those at the MA level, and 52.3% of doctoral candidates. But in academe the glass ceiling is particularly thick: only 14% of senior faculty is female. Other sociological indicators are less edifying. Only 13% of those completing secondary school in poorer areas enter the gates of higher education (in comparison to 45.5% from the most established towns). Barely 10.1% of those studying at Israeli colleges and universities are Arab citizens of Israel (of whom 59% are women). Palestinians residing in the West Bank and Gaza are precluded from studying here; the number of foreign students has dropped. Clearly, there is a direct correlation between geographic and income differentials, the cost of advanced study (roughly NIS 10,000 at public universities and colleges and over NIS 30,000 at private institutions), and access to higher education. In the long-term, these patterns perpetuate and entrench profound social inequalities; they are a prescription for ongoing turmoil. Inadequate primary and secondary education is also unquestionably a factor. Those concerned with broad socioeconomic trends will find little comfort in the fact that the number of students in mathematics and computer sciences has dropped by over 40% (despite the revival of the hi-tech industries), or that registration in the paramedical fields in down by over 12%. And while the number of students in biotechnology has almost doubled, medical school applications are flat. Especially disconcerting for those who care about the intellectual vigor of the country - the soul of Israel - is the contraction in the scope and depth of offerings in the humanities and social sciences. Not only have applications diminished in these fields, but universities have either cut down or closed critical departments. Regional studies (Africa, Asia, Latin America, Eastern Europe and even the Middle East) are fast becoming an endangered species. Philosophy, literature, biblical studies and history are increasingly viewed as a dispensable luxury. These and related disciplines, which provide the critical minds crucial for a vibrant society, are truly at risk today. It is tempting to blame university administrators for these and other ills (overcrowded classrooms, poor teaching, and the appalling brain drain). Admittedly, they have been too eager to bow to the fickle demands of supply and demand, shifting academic fashions, and donor pressures for additional edifices. However, after five years of continuous cutbacks, which have included faculty reductions, departmental streamlining and an almost complete freeze on library acquisitions, it is evident that the real problem lies elsewhere. Skewed national priorities and immediate political interests are strangling Israel's future in every sense of the term. This week's decision to set up a panel to plan a reform of Israel's higher education system is timely. But its brief must be broader than purely financial. A multi-year program for the development of advanced learning must first deal with contents and accompanying structures and only then with budget. And if such a plan requires additional outlays on higher education so be it: 79% of the public in a recently published poll believes that current support for academe is totally inadequate. They are right: the returns from a robust network of universities and colleges are far greater than what can be measured only in immediate monetary terms.

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