Education: Graduating to vouchers and interest-free loans

Amnon Rubinstein sets out an "Anglo-American" vision to rescue Israeli higher education.

amnon rubinstein 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
amnon rubinstein 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center President Amnon Rubinstein is an iconic figure in Israel's legal community. By his mid-thirties he was dean of Tel Aviv University's Faculty of Law, then went on to a 25-year career in the Knesset. For his scholarly work in constitutional law and his legislative efforts in crafting the two Basic Laws guaranteeing human rights in Israel, the 2006 Israel Prize committee called him the "father of constitutional law in Israel." But law is not the only field in which Rubinstein has made his mark. He served as Education Minister from 1994 to 1996, a member of the Dovrat Commission under former education minister Limor Livnat and is president of an institution of higher learning that many consider to be the finest private college in Israel. By his own testimony, education is one of his most central concerns. As the debate on the future of higher education gathers political ferocity with last week's establishment of the new Shochat Committee - and as experts bemoan the "brain drain" to the United States and the slowly sinking test scores of Israel schoolchildren - The Jerusalem Post asked Rubinstein how he believed the education system - and with it the country - could be improved. What should Israeli higher education look like in the future? My vision for higher education is Anglo-American. That is, it should not be something single and monolithic, but rather something pluralistic, in which many different population groups can find their place. The Israeli model is extremely unsatisfactory. I recommend two policy changes: establishing a voucher system, according to which a subsidy is given directly to the student, who decides where he or she wants to learn; and providing no-interest tuition loans that students will repay as part of their income tax when they enter the workplace and start to earn money. This is the so-called "Australia Plan?" Yes, but more moderate, since I'm suggesting implementing the loan scheme without charging the students interest. The government will subsidize the five-percent interest, but this will be instead of covering two-thirds of the tuition. And the students would pay back the loan when their salary reaches the average wage in the marketplace, around NIS 7,500 per month? I always believed the average wage in the country was low. They should repay the loan when they reach 120 percent of the average wage. Won't there be a situation in which many will not be able to pay back their loans, due to their not reaching those salaries? The percentage of unemployed people with academic degrees is very low. University graduates, including humanities and social science majors, have the lowest percentage of unemployment in the country. What about the gap of 15 years or so between the start of the lending process and the beginning of repayment, when salaries start to reach repayment levels? The government will cover that bridge period, from 10 to 20 years. But it will mean a significant [long-term] cut in government expenditures. The important thing is that there is no bureaucracy set up to implement this process. The lending itself should be outsourced to the banks, while repayment can be executed through the income-tax mechanism.It's rational and simple, and I don't understand why it isn't done. Officials in the Education and finance Ministries, and politicians as well, have expressed support, in principle, for the Australia Plan. So why hasn't it been introduced? The Australia Plan and the voucher issue were already planned [as far back as] my term as education minister [May 1994-June 1996], but it was interrupted in the middle [by the Rabin assassination and the subsequent election loss that left Rubinstein's Meretz party outside the government]. Since then, I suggested it to three prime ministers: Bibi [Binyamin Netanyahu], [Ehud] Barak and - through the Finance Ministry - to the current prime minister. They all said that "they're thinking about it." It must be enacted with the voucher system, in order to increase the competition among universities. Germany was once home to the most famous universities in the world. Today, they don't have a single world-class university. In the international rankings, England and the United States hold 90% of the best universities, while Europe is at the bottom. How did this happen? This happened because they were publicly funded. Public funding is stingy and doesn't bring the best forces into play. It created a [bureaucratic] unity that brought the level of the universities down to equal. Academia isn't unique: Where there is no competition, things deteriorate. How worried are you by the recent warnings of a massive "brain drain" to the United States, with statistics showing a 22% drop in university faculty over the past five years due to budget cuts? I'm very worried about the "brain drain." The voucher system I'm suggesting would help more and more universities to pay salaries. The tuition will rise when the student takes out a loan and pays back the entirety of the tuition. Also, when the government has more money [due to freed-up tuition funds], it can raise the budget for scientific research, which is the weak point of our higher education. And it will do this based on merit, not connections or seniority. There will be competition over the research funds, and there will be money to return scientists to Israel. Won't the Australia Plan help counter the brain drain by freeing up private scholarship funds and redirecting them toward research grants that would attract academics to Israeli institutions? And won't that eliminate the need for government-funded scholarships? It won't free up scholarship money for those students who will refuse to take out loans. Who would refuse a free loan when repayment is dependent on a high salary? The students we have here funded by the Or Foundation - Ethiopians or students from development towns - simply won't take loans. An Ethiopian student won't sign on an NIS 200,000 tuition loan, not ever. He can't do it psychologically. It's a cultural difference. Just as the psychometric exam doesn't fit everyone, the loan regime won't work for everyone. It will take a decade or two for the Israeli student to get used to this plan. And during this time, I don't want the weaker sectors of society to drop out of higher education because of it. That would be a disaster. Therefore, the loan scheme should be merged with a scholarship system that will be targeted to the lowest socioeconomic sectors of society. How do you rate Diaspora education on Israel? According to a recent American Jewish Committee study, it's virtually non-existent. This is a serious gap. The schoolbooks don't emphasize this issue. We have to admit that there are two large centers of Judaism today, in Israel and the United States. The great fix for this is mutual visits. But I would start at a younger age than birthright or Masa, already in the sixth or seventh grade. And I would send kids in both directions. Do you agree with the assessment that the growing gap between the two largest Jewish communities constitutes a strategic threat for both? I do, and it worries me greatly. But in the meantime, I have other existential worries, so it's on the back burner. Do you support teaching Jewish values in the state education system? An Israeli schoolchild has a very serious problem. He reads the [Jewish] sources, reads that violating Shabbat is such a terrible transgression deserving of punishment, and then he goes home and his parents take him on a field trip over Shabbat. So there's a dissonance between the Jewish values taught and the secular lives of the pupils? Dissonance is an understatement. It's something the pupil very quickly comes to see as a lie. Add to this Orthodox religious politics, and the schoolchild starts to recoil from religion. Very quickly he stops wanting to learn Talmud, despite the fact that it's very interesting and intellectually challenging. But it's now part of the system of religious coercion. On the other hand, children in Israeli families who travel to the United States have no problem getting into Jewish studies, joining Jewish community centers and going to synagogue. The Jewish community in the United States is organized in a pluralistic way, and is adapted to a modern lifestyle. Take the example of going to synagogue. A synagogue that doesn't allow a family to sit together alienates Israelis, and rightly so. For the secular child, a synagogue that divides between Mom and Dad isn't his synagogue. So the Shenhar Report - a great report - recommended, first, to teach that there is pluralistic Judaism, and second, to suit the Judaism taught in each school to the school community. It's the only way: a pluralistic universal Jewish culture that is suitable for a majority of people. If you insist that Judaism is just the Shulhan Aruch, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef or Rabbi [Yosef Meir] Lau, [secular Israelis] won't accept this Judaism. It sounds as though you would agree with the view that the religious-secular divide in Israel originates in the politicization of religion, in the establishment of a governmental religious bureaucracy in the form of the chief rabbinate. The politicization of religion is destructive to Judaism. But it's also the religious parties, the rabbinical courts, municipal chief rabbis…the whole system. Would you disband the system, then? I wouldn't disband it, but I would make it voluntary rather than statutory. I'm against giving [official] power to organized religious institutions, not just among the Jews, but also among the Arabs. At the same time, I would promise the religious public three things. First, I would promise them a religious education. I would maintain the mamlachti dati (religious public) education system and the private haredi education system, telling them that they have a constitutional right to educate their children as the family wishes. Second, I would promise that civil marriages demand a civil divorce and a religious marriage would require a religious divorce with a get. And third, I would promise Shabbat and Jewish holidays as official rest days. I very much support that. But all that would be conditional on dismantling the official status of the religious institutions. Do you think this is an attainable policy objective? Today, no. Their political power is too great. But it is noteworthy that the Dovrat Report has a few important points on this issue that nobody noticed. One of these is the recommendation that any Israeli up to age 30 can get government funding for studies toward a matriculation certificate. In other words, if the haredi or Muslim communities denied this to any Israeli up to age 30, that Israeli has the option of taking the matriculation exam with the state's assistance. This will preserve the free right of an Israeli citizen to choose what world he chooses to belong to. Finally, let's talk about teachers' wages. A starting salary for a teacher is about NIS 2,900 per month, NIS 600 lower than minimum wage, despite the fact that it is for full-time employment. That's the crux of the argument, whether or not they work full-time. The Dovrat Report calls for paying teachers the full salaries of government workers with academic degrees, on condition that there is a fundamental change [in their working conditions]. That is, they must spend a full day at school five days a week. There won't be any way to avoid this demand. And you can't have something for nothing. In the end, you'll have to cut the number of teachers. By how much do we need to increase the salary in order to effectively reform the teaching profession? It has to be doubled. But without the [other recommended] changes contained in the Dovrat Report, it won't help. [As Education Minister] under Rabin, I raised salaries by 50%, and the teachers heaved a sigh of relief. But it didn't solve the problem. And you must bring men into education. It's been proven that the lack of men in the profession is disastrous in terms of the image of the education system, particularly in the eyes of teenage boys. If you want to bring the best to education, you have to make these changes.