A Failing Success Story

Lack of vision and courage pervade the government attitude to higher education A few weeks ago I was interviewed by Taiwan Public Television for a series on national success stories. For each field of endeavor they had chosen a country whose achievement in that particular field was exemplary. Finland had been selected for its success in elementary education and France for its cultivation of art and culture; Israel had been chosen for its success in creating a world-class higher education system. My Taiwanese guests cited the Academic Ranking of World Universities, published annually by Shanghai Jiao Tong University's Institute of Higher Education. The ranking is a well publicized list of the world's top 500 universities. No other country large or small - except for Israel - has all of its universities listed. I, somewhat self-effacingly, pointed out that my institution - the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the highest ranked Israeli institution of the seven on the list - is ranked at only 64, below my ambitions. My interviewers responded that only 15 countries have at least one university among the top 100, and these are the United States, Canada, a number of Western European countries, Japan, Australia and Israel - not bad company to be in, they said. My guests went on to cite the fact that Israel is at the top of the list of scientific papers published per capita, that the country's highly successful knowledge-based industry draws human and intellectual resources from the higher education system and so on. I couldn't but agree. A few days later I was interviewed by the Chronicle of Higher Education for an article on the subject of "the crisis in Israel's higher education system," pertaining to the all-out strike by senior faculty members in Israel's universities, which began in early October and promises to be long and protracted. The strike is the culmination of eight or nine stormy years in our higher education system, which has included two crippling student strikes; devastating budget cuts that have restricted the resources available for students by over 20 percent; evidence of an escalating brain drain; and a general feeling of malaise and loss of direction within the system. I had to agree that Israel's higher education system is in deep trouble. If this sounds incongruous, then yes it is. Such incongruity is not that unusual in present-day Israel, where phenomenal success stories are intertwined with perceived failures; a striking example is the total disparity between the successes of the booming Israeli economy and the apparent failure of the Second Lebanon War, along with the maladroit way in which the country is being governed. Prof. Magidor is the president of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem For full story please subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here to subscribe.