The lost decade

Is a new degree initiative aimed at guaranteeing Israel’s academic excellence a case of too little, too late?

Student cartoon 521 (Do not use) (photo credit: Avi Katz)
Student cartoon 521 (Do not use)
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
No one seriously disputes that over the past 10 to 15 years the seven major research universities in Israel have gone through a period of significant contraction, to the point of threatening long-term deterioration to the national research infrastructure unless the trend can be reversed. It is commonplace to hear both academics and politicians bemoan what has come to be called the “lost decade” in the country's higher education.
As a result of a series of across-the-board cuts in government ministry budgets, an accumulated 25 percent reduction in state support for research university budgets took place between the years 2001 to 2007. Simultaneously, in response to public pressure, government-mandated tuition fees dropped by 26 percent in real terms, further cutting deeply into university budgets at a time when they were struggling to meet pension obligations to a large cohort of retiring employees hired during the growth spurt in the 1960s and early 1970s.
Universities found themselves with no choice but to implement staff reductions that negatively affected the quality of both research and teaching. Tel Aviv University, to take just one example, reduced its number of faculty positions by about 400 over the past decade, even as student enrollment increased.
In response to this dismal state of affairs, the Council for Higher Education (CHE), the national supervisory and accreditation body for universities and colleges, in 2010 composed a six-year plan to correct the deleterious effects of the lost decade. The plan calls for determining funding of academic units based on proven excellence, the addition of 2,000 new faculty members nationwide, a doubling of the funding made available by the Israel Science Foundation from 270 million shekels to 520 million shekels annually, and establishing 30 new centers of excellence. Each such center of excellence will focus on a particular academic subject, while attracting back top Israeli academic talents who have left the country, increased investment in university infrastructures, and increased quality control over teaching.
The government accepted the CHE’s proposed six-year plan. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, himself a former university professor, promised to fund the recovery and expansion plan to the tune of an extra 2.5 billion shekels over six years, over and above the existing 6.9 billion-shekel annual state funding of higher education.
Dr. Ami Volansky, a professor at Tel Aviv University’s School of Education, however, is concerned that while the CHE’s six-year plan will shore up the country’s research universities, it does not sufficiently address a need for expanding higher education accessibility for large segments of the population who hitherto have been shut out of the opportunity to go to college.
“There was a long period of time during which the higher education system widely opened its doors. This was a ray of light during the dark period of large budget cuts,” Volansky tells The Jerusalem Report. “The six-year plan places great weight on correcting the worst aspects of the lost decade, and rightfully so. But it limits the growth of accessibility to higher education to such an extent that it amounts to a freeze.”
Volansky spells out in great detail both his analysis of the effects of the lost decade and his suggestions for continued expansion of higher education accessibility in a discussion paper recently published by the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies, titled, After the ‘Lost Decade’ – Where is Higher Education in Israel Headed?
Volansky’s discussion paper opens with a sweeping review of positive developments in Israeli higher education, which has experienced two decades of uninterrupted growth. He identifies the major turning point in a series of government decisions in 1993 and 1994 that permitted colleges to grant academic degrees (at least at the bachelor’s level).
Prior to that, higher education had been available only at one of the seven research universities (or the Open University, which pioneered distance learning techniques).
Following the major growth spurt of the ’60s and early ’70s, no new universities were established. At the same time, Israeli society and the economy were undergoing changes placing an ever increasing premium on advanced degrees. The result was a growing sense of frustration throughout the 1980s among those who were denied the opportunity to obtain a university degree.
The decision to allow colleges to open up alongside the “elite” universities released a long-suppressed wave of energy, in response to a rapidly escalating demand for degrees among the general Israeli populace. The huge influx of immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the early 1990s aso created a large pool of both new students and teachers, adding to demand. As a result, no fewer than 43 new institutions of higher learning were either established as or upgraded to degree-granting colleges over the past two decades.
Although the system that was originally envisioned was a “binary system” – in which colleges focus on education and vocational training while research is carried out at universities – in recent years some of the more prestigious colleges have requested and received permission to open programs awarding master's degrees in addition to bachelor's degrees.
An increasing number of college faculty members who are engaged in research as well as teaching has also further eroded the original sharp distinction between colleges and universities.
The number of students enrolled in higher education more than doubled, from 118,000 in 1993 to 290,000 in 2009.
In 2008 fully 45.8 percent of college-aged Israelis were enrolled in higher education, compared to just 21 percent in 1990 – a leap from one in five to nearly one in two. Just as importantly, the perception of higher education changed from being the preserve of society's elite to an equal-opportunity goal necessary for advancement.
“Counting colleges as well as universities, higher education accessibility grew at a rate of 8 percent a year over the last 20 years,” notes Volansky. For individuals, having or lacking a degree can translate into a big difference in salary; Israelis with 16 years of education earn on average 11,600 shekels per month as opposed to 6,000 shekels for those with 12 years or less of education.
The importance of higher education in contemporary Israel is undeniable. In research, Israel is ranked third in the world in per capita scientific publications. The Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University and the Technion are routinely ranked among the world's top 100 institutions of higher education in the sciences. Over the past decade, five Israelis have been awarded Nobel Prizes and one, Elon Lindenstrauss, won a Fields Medal, the top prize in mathematics that is regarded as the equivalent of a Nobel Prize.
According to some estimates, 41 percent of the country’s GDP growth is due to advances in research and development, and 29 percent to increased higher education in the general population. Fully 70 percent of patents registered to Israelis had their roots in university research.
These positive developments, however, cannot paper over the overall erosion of the lost decade, which Volansky says casts a shadow “so heavy that it threatens to push the entire system backwards.”
To some extent, nearly an entire generation of Israeli academic researchers found themselves unable to obtain permanent positions in universities, and were forced to choose between leaving the country or toiling at low-paying temporary teaching jobs. The resulting “brain drain” was severe enough to lead leading academics to warn that unless the tide was stemmed, the current cohort of Israeli Nobel Prize winners would be the last.
The average age of a university faculty member in Israel leapt from 46 in 1980 to 53.5 in 2009, reflecting a long-term hiring freeze. The student to faculty ratio, which stood at 17 to 1 in 1990, ballooned to 24 to 1 by 2009, in comparison with the ratio of 10 to 1 or less that is considered standard internationally for top quality universities.
Even if the CHE’s six-year plan is fully implemented successfully, it is only expected to reduce the student to faculty ratio to 21.5 to 1.
Demand for college enrollment does not appear to be abating. Two years ago, the CHE reported no less than 450 outstanding requests for approval for new degree-granting educational tracks at colleges. Some of those programs had been languishing on the waiting list for five years or more. The CHE’s six-year plan, however, is heavily focused on the research universities, as opposed to the colleges, and it plans for an overall 2-percent increase in the nationwide student population, approximately proportional to general population growth.
It is against this background that Volansky calls for a rethink of the current university/college system, and the consideration of adding a third layer to offer the equivalent of the associate degree in the United States or the foundation degree in the United Kingdom. Such a degree is less than a full-fledged academic degree such as the bachelor’s degree, but ranks higher than a high-school diploma and can be obtained with two years or less of enrollment.
“There has been a change in the public perception of higher education that should not be ignored,” says Volansky, who holds a PhD in education from the University of Oxford. “This is akin to a fired arrow that cannot be returned.”
Volansky advocates introducing a three-tiered system of universities, colleges and community colleges along the lines of the highly successful California higher education system.
“This would be a way to support the research university without limiting accessibility to higher education frameworks,” explains Volanksy.
“People who have obtained an associate degree could then choose to build on the credits they had accumulated in two-year colleges to transfer to BA-granting institutions for a full academic degree, or to seek jobs using their associate degree.”
But will there be a demand for a degree below the bachelor’s degree in the employment market? Volansky responds with an emphatic yes. He points out that many in the Arab and haredi sectors of the Israeli population, which comprise the majority of those mired in poverty, are increasingly looking for ways to obtain skilled employment.
“Surveys in both the United States and the United Kingdom show that there are many employers who are seeking workers with associate degrees, and projections indicate increased demand for such employees in coming years,” says Volansky. “This is true in many industries, including information and data-heavy industries.
There are plenty of systems operations jobs that do not require a full engineering degree, but do require the amount of post-secondary education that one gets in studying for an associate degree.”
In fact, he says, a recent OECD report recommended introducing precisely a level of higher education equivalent to an associate degree to the Arab sector in the Galilee, to boost employment.
“The associate degree has proven its worth in many places,” concludes Volansky. “In Israel the lack of an associate degree has left a vacuum.”