University woes

Like in previous years, the bones of contention are government budgetary allocations and tuition costs.

October 23, 2006 03:58
3 minute read.
Hebrew University 88

Hebrew University 88. (photo credit: )


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Over 200,000 students in 54 institutions of higher learning (eight more will reopen in the North by the end of the month) began their academic year yesterday, but lecturers were quick to warn that this is a conditional return to studies and that the universities and colleges may be shut down after this first semester. As in the agonizing outset of nearly every recent academic year, the bones of contention are government budgetary allocations to the country's academic institutions and the costs of tuition. Both have gone down - particularly in the past five years. University deans insist the cutbacks in government grants have been destructively drastic, while students bewail the fact that tuition was not cut as much as promised (though for now threats to re-hike fees have been set aside). These twin difficulties - grants and fees - have dogged our academic institutions without letup. The student unions, for instance, asserted yesterday that "Israeli higher education is unaffordable, making it for all intents and purposes the exclusive preserve of the rich." This, it is argued, will drive young Israelis to cheaper alternatives overseas. University faculties, for their part, claim that continued slashes in higher education funding will undercut our national achievements in scientific research and cause our budding student talents to seek greener academic pastures abroad. A new ingredient in the mix is the increasing demand of the regional and community colleges for a larger share of government largesse, on the grounds that they offer more accessible teaching facilities. Indeed, this year 58% of undergraduates countrywide are enrolled in colleges and for the first time the number of freshmen there exceeds those at universities. Yet despite the students' hue and cry over the fact that for the past five years tuition fees were cut by only 26% instead of the 50% promised, it is undeniable that fine university education is available in this country at what are by international standards bargain basement prices. Tuition at American universities akin to Israel's largest six is much costlier. Annual US fees can range between $30,000-$50,000. Even state universities in America are pricey. By contrast Israeli students pay NIS 8,000 a year. Needed aren't lower fees but student loan programs to directly help out-of-pocket individuals. A cash-strapped economy should not squander funds on further subsidies for those who already can afford our current relatively low fees. By the same token, our hard-pressed economy cannot be expected to foot the bill for all university whims. Not all university programs are of equal merit or importance. Moreover, it would be disingenuous to claim that there are no frills and waste within university administrations, or that there is no fat to trim. Nonetheless, university heads have a cogent case when they note that without adequate funding the future of this country's scientific research would be severely compromised. This would not only deprive Israel of its unique standing but would eventually lead to critical brain drain. Researchers unable to secure funding for their undertakings here will pursue financing in other countries. Without research and the wherewithal to initiate and maintain academic programs, which offer employment as well as research opportunities, the brain drain could intensify to a catastrophic outflow. This essentially is why the universities must continue to receive preferential treatment to the local colleges. Much as the latter offer opportunity to greater numbers of students, who for the most part cannot meet university entrance requirements, and valuable though colleges might be as democratizers of higher education, the future of Israeli academia depends on training graduate researchers and cadres of future scientific and intellectual leaders. The NIS 140 million reallocated to higher education by the Treasury a few days ago constitutes a mere palliative and doesn't compensate for the NIS 1 billion lost since 2001. The challenge is to keep our universities from withering, while at the same time avoiding the funneling of funds indiscriminately and unsystematically. Outlays which the economy for the most part can ill afford to spare must be earmarked specifically to those departments and research projects - whether in the hard sciences or not - most essential to maintaining our academic excellence.

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