Staunching the brain drain

The quality of Israeli institutes of higher education and research could be saved by the Shochat C'tee.

technion 88 (photo credit: )
technion 88
(photo credit: )
When Israel's academic and research institutions find themselves in crisis, they needn't try to reinvent the wheel. Many other nations have experience in dealing with similar contingencies, and there is much to be learned from them. Since educational systems can also learn from each other, a recent symposium on reforming the higher educational system in Israel - held at the Israel Academy of Science and featuring several outstanding people from abroad - was very useful. Prof. Benno Schmidt, chairman of the board of trustees of the City University of New York (CUNY), nodded at former finance minister Avraham Shochat at the end of his speech and said: "Good luck to you, sir. You have an important assignment. It's time to think boldly in Israel." Shochat, who since October has been chairing a committee on the reform of higher education, smiled knowingly at Schmidt - former president of Yale and an expert on constitutional law. Shochat's as-yet-unannounced reforms have already provoked a strike by students who fear he will raise tuition. Schmidt told the audience of several dozen university and college presidents and other academics that he recommended a "fundamental reassessment" of the direction of higher education here, given the current ageing of university faculties, the brain drain of young scholars and scientists, and the decaying research infrastructure due to cutbacks in state financing. A DECADE ago, then-New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani asked Schmidt to head a task force to reform CUNY, the network of public colleges in New York City. As a visitor from abroad, Schmidt told the symposium that he could "only marvel at productivity and excellence of universities here, especially in scientific and technological research. I'm stunned that your universities have accomplished so much on the budgets they have. But when I hear about the decline in public funding, the superannuation of your faculty [average age 53] and the brain drain, it made me think of times at Yale and CUNY [when reform was needed]." The US lawyer and academic leader said that during the past quarter century in the US, there has been a "fundamental shift in thinking about the role of universities." As established businesses lost hundreds of thousands of jobs, innovative new businesses coupled with top research have thrived. "Young people educated at research universities are the driving force behind US economic growth, and such higher education is seen as the only real source of future prosperity. Thus the federal government has made a massive investment in research universities, with $30 billion a year spent by the US National Institutes of Health alone." Aware that raising tuition is a politically sensitive subject, Schmidt said: "We had riots at CUNY when we announced tuition hikes, but the students came around because there is substantial student support through loans and scholarships. I don't know why the beneficiaries of education should not contribute to its cost." Schmidt said all New York universities have set up technology transfer companies to make deals with industry for implementing research and sharing profits with researchers. "At Columbia University alone, the discoveries of just one investigator have brought in over $1 billion in royalties in 12 years." He also recommended the establishment of teams bringing together scientists in various fields, and endorsed the idea of Hebrew University president Prof. Menachem Magidor to concentrate efforts in a small number of campuses. Magidor stressed the importance of the universities in carrying out research, as opposed to regional colleges, whose focus is on degrees and vocations. "What is a research university? It is for promoting new knowledge. It must not only train future leaders of a profession, but also teach students to think out of the box and ask difficult questions. Not all institutions of higher education can do it, so the role of research universities is essential to the future existence of the country." Admitting that as HU president he was "somewhat biased," Magidor said he advocated the "concentration of research effort in the universities. If not, research will be spread too thinly." He noted that in the US, only 109 academic institutions, out of thousands, can be considered - by Israeli criteria - research universities. PROF. RICHARD ATKINSON, a psychologist and memory expert at Stanford who is now president of the entire University of California higher education system, described the setup in California, in which 50% of the state's high-school graduates now go to university, college or community college, compared to only 12% a few decades ago. Those whose school and state-wide test grades are in the highest 12.5% are accepted into university; in the top third by the state university system, and the bottom two-thirds by community colleges. Research programs get little money from the state, but much from the federal government's many agencies and some from private foundations. Atkinson recommended California's peer-review system, in which grants are given to individuals and groups and not to whole universities, so that the best people are recruited and tenure isn't given to the unproductive. "If you look at our state's biotech industry, all our top companies are within 25 miles of our great research universities," said Atkinson, who used to be chancellor of the University of California at San Diego, and after whom a mountain in Antarctica has been named. Another important milestone, he noted, was the Bayh-Dole Act, which gave intellectual property rights to the universities in which research was conducted, and not to the government that funded the research - with royalties going to the scientists. Israel Academy president Prof. Menachem Ya'ari said for decades there were only seven academic universities (plus the Open University) and very few academic colleges. "Budget allocations used to be very haphazard. When a university president wanted a budget increase, the finance minister offered to take him for a ride to the office." Then the Council of Higher Education's powerful planning and budgets committee was founded, which made the decisions more systematic. Until the 1990s, Ya'ari continued, Israeli universities enjoyed expansion and relative prosperity. But then there was a change in the political arena, and a demand for more access to higher education. Fifty academic colleges have been established around the country, where little research is conducted. Meanwhile, an "anti-intellectual atmosphere" reduced academia's prestige, and the Treasury took advantage of this by deep budget cuts. "We are at the tail end of that crisis, but still grappling on how to get out of it," Ya'ari said. It was the crisis that led to the appointment of the Shochat Committee. UNIVERSITY TUITION levels had been examined by a committee every five or six years, but then the Winograd Committee, under pressure from student demonstrations, cut it by 28%. "It was a very significant reduction," said Shochat, "and the government compensated somewhat but not enough." His committee, he said, has many more issues to discuss than tuition, including how to promote research, the division of labor between teaching and research, and the relationship between academic institutions in the center and in the periphery. Ya'ari heads a sub-committee focusing on how to promote research in academic institutions. Shochat, a former finance minister and mayor of Arad, said that if nothing major is done, the quality of Israeli universities and research will decline. There is almost no money to hire promising young lecturers, he said. "We must encourage excellence in research and promote the addition of young teaching staff." By the end of April, the subcommittees will bring recommendations, which will be integrated into a single report by June. While not revealing what his committee will recommend, he said he would not have taken the temporary job unless he felt there was a real intention to increase higher education funds. Prof. Shlomo Grossman, chairman of the planning and budgeting committee, said that in 2006, its budget was only $1.6 billion. The bright side is that there are many more academic college students in north and south (but unfortunately, a decline in the Jerusalem region). "There are more going to higher education in the Arab and haredi sectors than we ever expected." But he noted that 48% of university faculty are over 55. Grossman also revealed that half of Israelis doing doctorates or post-doctoral work in the US have no firm plans to return to Israel. "This is a very worrisome warning sign. Israel must bring back and attract the best minds."