ariel college 298.
(photo credit: Courtesy photo)
Since the founding of the state, those at the helm of higher education have resisted the expansion of the system, on the grounds that this would lead to mediocrity.
Thus the Hebrew University resisted the establishment of Tel Aviv University in the early 1950s, suggesting instead that a new academic center in the Dan region should be merely a satellite campus. Hebrew University lost that battle. Bar-Ilan and Tel Aviv joined the list of universities in the 1950s, and Haifa and Ben-Gurion universities brought higher education to the North and South in the 1960s. There are now eight official universities, including the Open University, the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and the Weizmann Institute of Science, and another 27 academic colleges and 27 teachers colleges.
The experience of these world-class universities and colleges has proven that limiting the growth of the higher education system was a wrong-headed idea back then, and it is now. The presence of highly regarded universities in Beersheba and Haifa, and another in Ramat Gan uniquely committed to a Jewish relationship with modern science and the humanities, has contributed powerfully to the development of Israel's geographic and social peripheries, and has made higher education a richer and more common experience for Israelis.
The recent deep troubles of the higher education system notwithstanding, a student body of 1,600 in 1948 has transformed into a quarter million today - a 150-fold expansion, many times greater than the 12-fold expansion of the general population. In a country whose sole natural resource is salt, these universities have given Israel the growing economic and intellectual engine that has allowed it to survive and prosper.
So it is strange that the familiar discredited excuses are being heard today when speaking of government support for public colleges in the periphery. While the education system prepares for the now-traditional budget battle at the start of the academic year next week, nobody inside the government or outside it seems to have taken the colleges into account.
Colleges divide into two types: public regional colleges and private institutions. The private colleges have asked for little from the government, relying on high tuition and private donors to fund their activities. Their student body, meanwhile, is necessarily well-off, and their distribution is almost entirely in the country's Center, serving its economic and social elite.
The public colleges are opposite in profile. They are scattered throughout the most distant periphery - Western Galilee Academic College in Acre, Sapir Academic College outside Sderot, Tel Hai in Kiryat Shmona, and others in places such as Katzrin, Eilat and the Jezreel Valley. They serve a student body that is more ethnically, religiously and economically diverse than the universities or private colleges, but they are limited by government subsidies to a small number of students.
"Western Galilee Academic College has a quota of 1,700 subsidized students each year in its five-year [growth] plan, so we can't adequately expand our student body next year," the college's director Mickey Schmeltzer told The Jerusalem Post recently, adding that the demand for the college was high among Galilee youth who simply couldn't afford the almost-NIS 30,000 annual tuition for unsubsidized students. Government subsidies lower this figure to under NIS 9,000.
The college budgets also mean lower salaries for lecturers, who are not expected to conduct research, only to teach. Yet a lecturer who is not conducting research, who is not learning and growing at the forefront of knowledge in the field, will almost assuredly offer a worse education. This arbitrary division between universities devoted to research and colleges meant only for "teaching" is a sure recipe for keeping education in the periphery mediocre. As long as the pay is worse, the better lecturers will stay in the central region.
It may be wise to concentrate the nation's research funds in the universities rather than spread them too thinly. Cutting-edge research can be expensive. But it is a mistake to limit the colleges' access to these funds almost entirely, as the current system dictates.
The colleges are neglected today not only by the present system, but by the latest plans for reform. The vast funds expected to be injected into higher education through the Shochat Committee recommendations and other reform plans will all but bypass the public colleges, and thereby bypass the students in the parts of the country that need them most.